In Conversation: Diane Mongudi (Acting CEO, Botswana Digital & Innovation Hub)

BW TechZone caught up with Diane Mongudi, acting CEO of the Botswana Digital & Innovation Hub, in a conversation which ranged from the mandate of the institution to challenges it has faced as well as its role in supporting Botswana's knowledge-based economy agenda.

Please tell us about the Botswana Digital & Innovation Hub and its mandate

Botswana Digital & Innovation Hub is a national innovation agency established by government to support and facilitate innovation in Botswana. The ultimate is for BDIH to assist the country in diversifying the economy to a knowledge-based one. One of the first tasks that the government gave us was to develop the science and technology pack, which we successfully did. 

We started off in 2011 with the then incubation programme called the First Step Venture Centre which played a critical role in aggregating all innovation as well as providing opportunities for startups. Through this initiative, we help startups from the ideation stage all the way to market entry. We also work with key institutions like academia and research institutions, as well as the private and public sectors as well as other key stakeholders within the innovation ecosystem.

In the ecosystem, the BDIH really bring all these stakeholders together to facilitate collaborations and partnerships to enable them to develop those unique products and services, that, hopefully, will solve our national challenges as a country.

What was the main challenge BDIH faced in trying to execute its mandate and how has it addressed that challenge?

When the BDIH was set up, the innovation and technology sectors in Botswana we nonexistent. As a result, it was difficult for both the public as well as the private sector to invest in the innovation and technology space. So it was our responsibility to ensure that we set up and facilitate that sector. The starting point was to ensure that the necessary legislations were in place and to that end, we advocated for the government to develop some of those policies and legislation such as the National Innovation Policy. 

We're happy that the government has approved the National Innovation capability framework which set up a structure on how the innovation and technology sector can be coordinated in the country. 

How does BDIH ensure that all Batswana have access to technology?

BDIH has participated in and continues to be involved in key national initiatives to promote STEM education. During World Telecommunications & Information Day, we worked with our partners and members to deliver training on digital transformation around the country. 

Recently, we also worked with the Computer Science department at the University of Botswana to deliver courses around robotics and coding which were attended by several schools across the country. This is all with the aim of closing the digital gap. We also work with social enterprises such as Dare To Dream to host events where around 15 schools participated.

In short, we want to ensure that we reach out to all the stakeholders across the country to try and bridge that digital divide so that we leave no one behind. We are committed to supporting the government in ensuring that all our citizens and key stakeholders are involved in moving our economy towards the objective goal of a knowledge-based economy. 

How important have partnerships been in helping BDIH pursue its goals?

We have realised that we can only deliver our mandate if we work with our local, regional and international partners. We rely on these partners to assist us in delivering on our mandate. For example,  they assist us with capacity development trainings for our startups to enable them to develop innovative products and services. 

We have partnerships with the likes of AWS and UNICEF where we were able to train and upskill out-of-school school youths on cloud computing. Locally, we have collaborated with the likes of the University of Botswana to provide robotics and coding training.  Our partnerships have also enabled women by capacitating them to create products and services that are unique to the country. So we thrive through partnerships and we cannot survive as an organisation if we don't have these partnerships.

Please share how the BDIH supports Botswana technology startups 

There is a need to invest in STEM education and to increase the number of researchers who can produce unique products and services. We also need to get the public as well as the private sector involved in supporting our startups and BDIH acts as an enabler of this process. 

Initiatives like the Botswana Innovation Fund help with providing seed funding to startups for them to develop their products and services. The impact of the fund has been massive, with some projects already going to the market. We are also revising the final guidelines and other policies to streamline the application process to ensure improvement in cohort quality.

We are trailing in creating venture-backable startups and to address this, we are also targeting venture capitalists and as well as other funders to consider investing in our startups. This includes creating a Botswana angel investor network group to provide funding opportunities to our startups. There's still a lot that needs to be done and we continue to expose our startups to other markets with mature venture capital ecosystems.

Where does the BDIH sit in helping the country achieve its knowledge-based economy mandate?

Innovation and technology sector present opportunities for Botswana to build a thriving digital economy, and also support long-term economic development. With continued investment and support, we believe the sector can help propel the country to the forefront of technological innovation, and also help the country address a range of social, economic and environmental challenges for a better future.

Innovative technologies have the potential to drive economic growth by increasing productivity and opening markets for local businesses. As we strengthen this innovation and technology ecosystem, we believe that it will attract investment and increase economic activity, leading to job creation and increased economic opportunities.

What future projects is the BDIH working on?

One of the key projects that we are working on is setting up what we call the SmartBots Lab. This will be a co-creation space which will provide all the necessary infrastructure to our innovators to develop unique products and services. Once it becomes operational, it will oversee and ensure the execution of these whilst also providing the requisite physical and virtual infrastructure. 

Within this lab, we'll have 3D printers, artificial intelligence software and the latest technologies. We want to see this lab being utilised for prototyping, testing and creation of digital solutions that support the digital transformation of the public sector. We will be working in partnership with research and funding institutions to ensure that the lab contributes towards national technological development as well as utilisation. We believe that this project will be operational by the third quarter of this year. 

The other project that we are also working on is to revamp our commercialization centre. This is an incubation platform that will take our innovators through from ideation to commercialization. You will note that when we started, our focus was towards incubation and we have got quite a lot of innovators who have now graduated from this programme and now need assistance to commercialise their products. 

Once the centre has been revamped and fully operational, we expect to see more homegrown innovative and tech-driven companies enter and start operating locally, regionally, as well as internationally. 

What do you think is the future of technology in Botswana?

Innovation and technology have the potential to drive economic growth. We believe that if proper investment is made, and innovators get support from key stakeholders, we will see new industries coming up. This, in turn, will lead to job creation. Through supporting innovators, we want Batswana to acquire the necessary skills and competencies that will make them compete internationally. 

Any parting words?

I would like to urge the nation to support the BDIH as well as our own innovative entrepreneurs. We want to build an organisation that can work with all stakeholders to help the country its knowledge-based economy mandate. We also urge innovators to register with us so we can support them in building technologies that will benefit all our people. 

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