Governments in Africa need to understand the integral role that technology plays in the economy, treating it as a single sector rather than a broad, cross-cutting and transformational issue.

During the World Economic Forum on Africa, panellists in a session on the Unicorn Effect – comprising past and present Quartz Africa Innovators of the year – said policy-makers should recognize the positive role that innovation can play in improving economic efficiency and creating jobs.

The utility of innovations, which is clear to the innovators, needs to be highlighted to governments, who can stifle creativity with regulation.

“Innovation is a conviction that something should be better,” said Rapelang Rabana, founder of Rekindle Learning. “It’s the tool that really helps us close critical gaps in our education and infrastructure.”

For inclusive growth to be a reality, skills development and education have to become faster and smarter than ever before. She said that innovation is already playing an important role in addressing socio-economic challenges, but needs more support from policy-makers.

Matsi Modise, MD of SiMODiSA Start-Up, said that government regulation and a lack of enabling policy have been a handbrake on the country’s ability to position itself as a hub for start-ups and high-impact innovation. Lobbying efforts have resulted in a reduction of the requirements for registering intellectual property, but more needs to be done to lift heavy regulation.

Ciiru Waweru Waithaka, CEO of FunKidz, Kenya, said small businesses are often viewed by policy-makers as fringe players in the economy, rather than as job creators and problem-solvers. Changing this perception would help improve the ecosystem for innovation.

Skills shortages are also an issue. “There is not enough skilled labour to operate the technology that exists,” said Waithaka.

He said that, despite the growth of technology in Africa through start-ups and entrepreneurs, African governments still use their significant procurement budgets to buy technology solutions developed outside the continent, rather than taking advantage of the Africa-specific technology on their doorstep.

The panel also discussed the need for a shift in the way the education system works in order to foster entrepreneurialism in Africa. Currently, education tends to be content driven, with children fed information by teachers. The next frontier of human development is to cultivate independent thought and self-learning skills at school level to prepare children for a world where life skills are more critical than ever.