Behind the Criteria #2: Innovation & Yale Africa Startup Review

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Innovation is the second of five criteria which the Yale Africa Startup Review uses to evaluate startups for #YASR30. Even for the most seasoned panels at startup pitch fests, hackathons and media agencies that rank companies, evaluating innovation is a gray area . Its more art than science; a seemingly more “innovative” pitch doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful venture when the rubber meets the road. A given “innovation” may be wrong for a specific market context, or directed at an inappropriate set of problems. It may also simply not be right for its time and complements in the ecosystem.

Should a glitzy machine learning algorithm in South Africa be rated as more “innovative” than a basic business process innovation that simplifies a rural agricultural value-chain in Cameroon? Should a basic tool to digitize the mundane process of tax collection in Tanzania be viewed as less “innovative” than a tech-y peer-lending platform in Morocco? At the Yale Africa Startup Review we take a 360-degree vantage point. We do this because our goal is to feature, not to rank; to tell stories of an emergent ecosystem across the continent, not a catalog of “who-is-who” in xyz.

With this 360-degree Vantage Point, YASR celebrates a glamourous step change in technology innovation (such as a new manufacturing robotic) just as much as a basic business process improvement in how farmers access markets for their produce. Neither is necessarily better than the other; the overriding theme is that each must be relevant in the local African market they operate and have potential for significant impact to people and businesses. We also believe that the learning process for startup is just important as the newest thing in town. Startups that are nominated tell us how they are learning from their customers and how they are leveraging these insights to improve their offering, to pivot or try out entirely new business models, even if that means slowing down to re-think strategy. It’s the hard way, but for the Yale Africa Startup Review, its also the right way to tell the exciting story of this very dynamic ecosystem to the world.

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