InnovaLab: An Innovation and Technology Hub of Guinea Bissau

Through the development of new technologies and the continuous stimulation of innovation, InnovaLab empowers entrepreneurs who want to expand their business, as well as young people who are still entering the world of entrepreneurship. For entrepreneurs, the company works on improving the performance of its activities, working mainly on the analysis of organisational problems and the development of plans of improvement. Meanwhile, young beginners are introduced to the world of social media and new technologies, expanding their work opportunities. These young people are also taught and trained in the areas of management, as well as supported in their businesses.

At ATLANTICO, Adulai Bary, co-founder and current CEO of InnovaLab, was excited to talk about the company he idealised along with his Guinean colleagues who, as well s him, recognise the importance of innovation and technology in the country’s development.

ATLANTICO: When and how did InnovaLab come about?

Adulai Bary: InnovaLab was born in 2015, through an opportunity I had to participate in the Forum of the Francophonie in Brussels, Belgium. At the time, I was working in a telecommunications company and ended up discovering in the event an interesting movement of laboratories, new ideas and startups. There, I came in contact with innovative ideas that help in generating employment, reducing crime, and creating and promoting businesses. When I returned to Bissau, I talked with my colleagues about this initiative which could have been a good idea for our system, given the situation in which our country was. One of my colleagues finally agreed, and from there we thought of the best way to start. The main difficulty was the lack of means and equipment; however, we had a lot of experience and competence. We tried to understand what needed to be done, which first was to change the mentality of people, because everything was a novelty.

ATLANTICO: What were the first steps, since then, for the creation of InnovaLab?

Adulai Bary: At the time, we were following the changes of the technology, and due to that, we started sensitising the youth.We took the first step, which was the creation of a radio program of thirty minutes. At first, we spoke about the news in the area of technology. We began by presenting concepts such as the functionalities of a computer and how to use it. We also had a “bloco de mentory”, which taught us how to build companies and projects. Finally, we talked about businesses and financing, inviting partners to share their experiences and opportunities.

By mid-2016, we noticed that the program already had many listeners and we started by receiving several requests from agents who wanted to hold meetings to discuss with us about projects and advice.

After that, we saw that it was necessary to organize means to reach more people. So we organised our first bootcamp on entrepreneurship. We had four candidates and all of them won World Bank funding. After that, we received support from the US embassy, searched for space, started paying and receiving agents in our free time. These agents monitored and mostly tracked the projects we selected during the bootcamp.

“The main difficulty was the lack of means and equipment; however, we had a lot of experience and competence. We tried to understand what needed to be done, which first was to change the mentality of people, because everything was a novelty”.

ATLANTICO: What were the main difficulties in this period?

Adulai Bary: At first it was difficult, we did not get any partnership from the state or local companies, but overtime things started to improve. At the time, we needed resources for food and rooms to perform our bootcamp activities. We were able to build a very good relationship with the US embassy and they help us a lot in that regard. They financed us with $20,000 and with that we were able to do something very interesting: we got 500 Africans as candidates. When we launched the application on the internet, we made available the telephone number of our radio program so people could get in touch with us. We had planned to train 45 young people but we surpassed this expectation – that was surprising for us. In a second phase, the embassy financed us again. We were able to do other bootcamps in Gabu. Bafatá, and other regions of the country where we started to train women producers. With this, they would be able to use digital technologies to accelerate the sale of their products.

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ATLANTICO: How many companies do you currently have incubated at InnovaLab?

Adulai Bary: We currently have five companies incubated. The idea is to follow these companies from a distance, so that at another stage they can pay.

ATLANTICO: How do you evaluate the projects carried out to date?

Adulai Bary: The main challenges in the early years were the change of mentality, the involvement of the state, private sectors and international organisations. Today, we can say that we have overcome this problem and are on a good journey. In the last event we had, for example, we organised a competition and the company that won represented us in Tanzania in a regional competition. This company will also represent us in Switzerland for a worldwide competition. The entrepreneurial movement is already being created, the interest exists and we have a plan of actin for the next five years.

“We cannot focus only on the area of entrepreneurship, but also on creating a critical mass of engineers and scientists”.

We are currently working with a lady Aliesha Baldé, with the support of Mr. Paulo Gomes. This lady had already worked with us to improve on this program that we started. We cannot focus only on the area of entrepreneurship, but also on creating a critical mass of engineers and scientists. She is working and identifying partners, but we already have axes to follow.

We also have a campaign to influence the start in including information technology early in the curricula, and thus enable the formation of a critical mass of children. We are also negotiating with Paulo Gomes regarding the creation of an investment fund, because we have projects that have to leave the laboratory and must be financed. Overall, that is the idea, but we still need infrastructures and internet.

ATLANTICO: Does InnovaLab have any dialogue with Brazilian entities? Is there any dialogue with other African countries?

Adulai Bary: Once we spoke with a Brazilian, have had proposed the opportunity to open a dialogue, but so far there has been nothing concrete. In relation to the African continent, we are ambassadors of a Swiss organisation that organises competitions in Africa, Asia and Europe. We are partnering with CTIC Dakar, a pioneering technology incubator in Senegal and we are also members of Next Einstein in Rwanda. Personally, I am the ambassador of Next Einstein here in Guinea-Bissau, an organization created by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, who is promoting the expansion of technology and science in Africa. We are part of some other networks and participate in events, so in a way, we are connected with different ecosystems. The idea of InnovaLab is to bring new actions and ideas that can extend to other countries.

ATLANTICO: Whcih projects have come out of InnovaLab and are they changing people’s lives? Is there a startup in full operation?

Adulai Bary: We have the Bandim Online website, which sells products from Guinea-Bissau, as well as a community ICT school that is functional and is part of a challenge promoted by the World Bank. Other companies that are also in operation are Big Technology, a service supplier company, and the UBUNTU project for solar energy. We have other ideas that are very advanced, but unfortunately they do not have funding yet. We also created a platform called “Nha Voto” (“My Vote”), which consists of influencing the population to build a more active community, so that their votes are directed the government that will take into account entrepreneurship and new technologies in their government programs. Furthermore, we are creating a robot that will use artificial intelligence to translate the Creole language into Portuguese. The goal now is to get out of the acceleration phase, get out of the lab, and face the market.