I first heard about the Innovation Prize for Africa in 2012, when my Nigerian friend Julius Akinyemi, an entrepreneur-in-residence at the MIT Media Lab told me about his involvement with the prize as well as with the Zurich-based African Innovation Foundation, the organisation behind the prize. ‘You have to find a way to meet Jean-Claude,’ Julius told me. ‘You and he have a lot in common.’
Having found out that he started the African Innovation Foundation in 2009 with a mission to ‘unleash Africa’s dormant potential and support sustainable projects that improve the lives and the future of people in Africa,’ I started asking various people, mostly my African entrepreneur friends, about Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais.
I was told that he was a controversial, enigmatic, publicity-shy Swiss-Angolan businessman who began his career as a management consultant and eventually made a fortune in technology, banking and real estate businesses while in his thirties. Now 49, he runs a multi-national conglomerate that spans several high-growth industries from Switzerland to Angola and beyond.
Organising the TRUE Africa interview itself was no easy task, because we discovered several layers of protection around Bastos, who tends to stick to a small group of advisors, including Pauline Mujawamariya, a Rwandan-American dynamo of a lady who runs the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA). I caught up with Jean-Claude via Skype on December 5th, the day after I met his communications advisor Walid El Alaoui Mrani in Lomé.
Walid had flown to Lomé, the city where I was born, where he announced, on stage as we were about to give the grand prizes for this year’s edition of our Forum of Young Entrepreneurs that the total prize money for the IPA 2017 was US$150,000, including $100,000 for the first prize. Walid encouraged our young Togolese entrepreneurs to apply, noting the fact that in 2014, one of the winners was from Togo. He was referring to Logou Minsob, who invented the now popular Foufou Mix machine.
The African Innovation Foundation’s delegation had recently embarked on a series of West African roadshows in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Togo to meet with government officials, industry leaders, investors and partners and discuss the bidding process leading to one of those three countries hosting the next Innovation Prize for Africa event, in 2017.
At the start of our Skype video conference, Jean-Claude, flanked by another communications advisor named Sangitha Umakanthan, told me that he was in Dubai and that he might have caught malaria on his most recent African trip. I had read that he was self-made, so I gave him a chance to tell me about his own entrepreneurial journey. Mostly he wanted to talk about his take on innovation, as applied to the current challenges on the African continent. Below, are edited excerpts of our conversation.
What is your entrepreneurial story?
My family on both my mum’s side and father’s side are entrepreneurs, so I guess I was lucky to grow up in that environment. My grandfather had to file for bankruptcy during the Swiss watch crisis in the 1970s. That was a time when Casio destroyed the Swiss mechanical watch industry, and Swatch eventually took over and brought all these Swiss companies together.
Now, if I compared myself to my fellow students, I was rich. I could buy myself a motorbike and other things like that.
I had to pay for my university on my own, and while at university I created a company I called M&A Partners, even though it was just me, myself and I. That company allowed me to find out about different companies in Switzerland. Now, I was in the game in Fribourg. Now, if I compared myself to my fellow students, I was rich. I could buy myself a motorbike and other things like that.
After that, I wanted to know how I could do that for bigger companies like Deloitte and Pricewaterhouse. That’s when I ventured into working with management consulting companies. I wanted to see how they come up with their strategies. After that experience, I became independent. And then, one day, these guys came to me saying there’s this thing going on in the States called the Internet. I raised some money for internet ventures, raised some money at the Stock Exchange, and made a bit of a profit.
Then, in the mid-1990s, Swiss banks started having problems. I restructured some companies that were in debt, and realised that I was pretty good at restructuring. But I wanted more innovation for some older companies that hadn’t done their homework in R&D, so I looked for new ventures and added a product range with new technologies going into older companies.
Where did Africa come into this Swiss story?
I always had a dream to go back to Africa. My Angolan family being quite big, as many African families are, my grandmother always wanted me to come back there, to give back. Her theory was that she had done everything so my father could go study in Europe. That was what she was most proud of. My father had married this blonde woman, and all the Africans used to look at her hair.
The core thing is they have to believe in themselves, and keep going and experimenting with new ideas until they find the right idea.
After the war ended in Angola, I went back and invested in corporate finance and real estate and then I opened my own investment bank. I started to think more about African entrepreneurs. The core thing is they have to believe in themselves, and keep going and experimenting with new ideas until they find the right idea. It’s much easier now, with the internet. Still, I find that the pace is not there, even though it’s improving. The older generation still has a complex related to old colonial thinking. I see how older Angolans still think Portugal is so important.
Why the Innovation Prize for Africa?
Initially I wanted to help create a new spirit of African innovation. Early on, we got to work with the African Union, and then with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). In 2012, the African Union and UNECA passed a resolution to promote an innovation-based society in Africa, and I must say that resolution put innovation on the map. Also, I felt that $150,000 was the right amount to support the winners ($100,000 for the winner + $25,000 for the runners up).
I want to create an ecosystem around innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, not just a spirit.
We had the five-year anniversary of the prize last year, and I am committed to doing it for another five years. At this point, I want to create an ecosystem around innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, not just a spirit. I don’t want to do it the standard way, with the hubs you see everywhere. I want to do it in the slums, where the need for new products is the biggest, in a manner called fast learning, where you don’t need basic knowledge, just will and motivation.
This is how it works: we take the young people in the slums into maker spaces, where they can work with wood, plastic, iron, or all kinds of materials. We have been doing a lot in the electronic space, letting them figure out how to put a lens into a computer for instance. It’s a way to show them that they, too, can build new things. Some of the kids that are participating in these classes are able to rebuild a 3D printer within three weeks.
We are renting a 3.3 hectare land at the Soap Factory in Luanda. We put containers in the space, which actually used to be a soap factory, and encouraged them to play with the containers by adding doors or glass or whatever else they chose to integrate. We aligned with local culture centers, and started integrating all kinds of cultural elements, from music to dance to theater. Culture is the main attraction pole, and it created an interesting place for young people to go.
Also, we put lots of computers in the maker spaces, so that the youth can play with them and realise for themselves that there is no magic to it. We show them how to do it, even bringing iron that they can weld and change. I am now building an apartment based on all the stuff we built in the soap factory. We showed them how to print their own cool t-shirts. We even create our own chess figures that are made of aluminum, which means that they can create their own little chess club.
We also have an accelerator and an incubator, and sports activities, and a radio station where people from the community are able to engage and express what it is that they need. We bought a trash collecting truck for the community, and they bring us the raw materials, including aluminium.
Which side of you is more Swiss, and which side is more African?
On the African side, I would say the creativity, the lightness of being, openness towards problems, and not complaining when things go wrong. I would add the community and brotherhood thing.
If I compare that with my Swiss family, it’s a completely different story. My grandfather was a Swiss man who had a lot of kids, and people tend to be less open, keeping problems to themselves, but there is real discipline when it comes to work. I would say I’m a chaotic guy who is very organized. In my chaos, I know exactly how to do it.
My Angolan grandmother could pretend to talk to ancestors, and I think I picked up some of that. Sometimes, the clarity of thought, the inspiration seems to come from somewhere, and it could be the ancestors. The fact that I am not pushing away that spiritual thing is definitely coming from my African side. The combination of that African and European thinking is what makes me me.
Find out more about the Innovation Prize for Africa. You have until January 3 to apply.