Career Innovation

AU Innovation Fellowship

The African Union (AU) recently launched the second cohort of the AU Digital and Innovation Fellowship Program. According to the AU announcement, 16 fellows will be recruited for the “robust 12-month program”.  Fellows of the AU Innovation Fellowship program will be required to take a break from current obligations and relocate to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to participate in the program. Although applications for the program have closed, the selection process for this 2024 cohort appears to be in progress.

AU Innovation Fellowship of Critical Thinkers

With a decidedly African orientation, only candidates who are based in Africa and are nationals of African Union member states will be considered in the selection process. The entire program’s documentation indicates that the aspiring fellows must be thinkers. “Analytical mind”, “problem solver” and “critical thinker” are all essential requirements. In addition to having the technical ability to develop innovative technology products/solutions, they must therefore be able to analyze issues and think critically about solutions and their impact and implications.

They are expected to use such expertise to strengthen key areas of the AU. Strengthening the internal processes and capacity of the AU departments to deliver the AU’s mandate is particularly mentioned. This work will be in line with identifying and addressing AU challenges in data management, good governance, and citizen engagement. In this context, selected candidates will provide their expertise in different AU departments. It’s no wonder that critical thinking is a crucial requirement, as fellows need to understand departmental operations, identify challenges, and propose innovative solutions.

AU Innovation Fellowship and Agenda 2063

The program is developed in line with Agenda 2063’s vision of “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena”. By getting qualified African nationals to become fellows contributing their ideas and expertise, the AU aims to use the program to promote the meaningful participation of citizens in governance. At the same time, in line with Agenda 2063, the program fosters innovation and the harnessing of technological innovations to address governance and development challenges in Africa.

By placing innovative fellows within the AU itself, the program aims to address bottlenecks and inefficiencies and improve the AU’s internal capacity and effectiveness in supporting and driving development activities across Africa.

Representation and Focus – AU Innovation Fellowship

While the AU innovation fellowship initiative is promising and potentially game changing, there are however, several issues to be considered and hurdles to be overcome. For example, how diverse is the range of fellows selected in terms of skillsets, geographic locations, and backgrounds within Africa? Running the program on a regular basis is one thing but how representative of the continent as a whole are the selected participants? The AU should ensure adequate representation of all regions, ethnicities, and genders within Africa. Additionally, what is the focus in the areas of data management, citizen engagement and governance? How is the AU’s focus determined? What are the stakeholder inputs? How well does the fellowship program prioritize specific development challenges?

Integration and Sustainability

Additionally, there could be serious challenges of integration and sustainability. How well will these technically skilled fellows connect, function, and add value within AU’s established bureaucracies? How adaptable and receptive will AU staff and processes be to the new ideas? The program shouldn’t be reduced to a trend or simply “innovation hype.” We must recognize that resistance to change, especially in such established setups, presents a huge challenge.

Furthermore, what are AU’s plans for the sustainability of solutions developed by fellows after the fellowship concludes? How will the continued development and implementation of fellows’ solutions be ensured? Sustaining impact beyond the fellowship year is crucial.  For sustainability planning, AU and the fellows should have clear plans for how their solutions can be maintained following the fellowship program.

Technical expertise within AU should also be considered. Do AU staff possess the technical competence to understand, implement, and sustain the fellows’ solutions? The importance of staff training and support is undeniable.

Resource Adequacy

A big concern is the limitation of resources. While the program is visionary, let’s be realistic. How much impact can 16 fellows make considering Africa’s considerable developmental challenges? Is the scalability of their solutions possible across a vast continent?

How well-resourced is the program? I suggest a more reasonable number of fellows in future editions to ensure the program has the desired impact on the lives and future of African citizens and their nations. Additionally, it is important that the program has champions within the AU system to ensure it is effectively mainstreamed, resourced, and supported.

Evaluating the Fellowship Impact

In this regard, the AU should put mechanisms in place to assess the impact of fellows. The ability to measure the program’s contribution to specific development goals is crucial. It helps to critically analyze the program’s strengths and potential weaknesses. Regular progress reviews, feedback sessions with stakeholders and target user groups (citizens, other AU departments) will provide valuable insights for improvement. A two-way street for feedback is essential.

Inspiring Future Innovation

Injecting innovative thinking into the AU and the development of tech-driven solutions specifically tailored to African contexts is a great development in the digital era. But it is not just about the AU benefiting from the fellows’ innovative solutions. Indeed, a major plus is that by connecting young talent with the AU, the program can contribute to expanding and strengthening the ecosystem for youth-driven innovation in Africa. It not only empowers young Africans with technical skills and experience working on real-world development challenges but also fosters the much needed collaboration and knowledge sharing. The fellows should indeed become leaders and innovators who drive the use and development of technological solutions to address Africa’s developmental challenges.

AU Innovation Fellowship – A Positive Step

Africa needs innovation to achieve sustainable development. The program is a step in this direction. However, the challenges are real. Overcoming the hurdles will require commitment and will from leadership. It is nonetheless a promising and fitting initiative for the digital era that fosters innovation, empowers young Africans and tackles Africa’s development challenges.

Author: Jide Awe

Science, Technology and Innovation policy advisor.

Find him on Twitter @jidaw

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