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[ADDIS ABABA] African innovators and inventors who design products with the potential to drive the continent's economic transformation may benefit from a new awards scheme.

The Innovation Prize for Africa, worth US$100,000, will be given for the first time in February 2012 to the best innovators in three areas: information and communication technology (ICT), green technologies, and health and food security. The runner-up will receive US$50,000.

The prize was announced last month (8 July) by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) based in Switzerland.

"The main objective of the initiative is to recognise ordinary Africans who have ideas that can be commercialised — ideas that can make a difference in the lives of people," said Aida Opoku-Mensah, director of the ICT, Science and Technology Division at UNECA.

Many Africans regularly design innovative solutions to problems but are not recognised for their work, she said. "What we need today is to be able to help Africans to be proud of designing things and owning that design."

The aim of the prize is to support sustainable development by tapping into the ingenuity of Africans to solve their own challenges. A technical advisory committee will set different thematic areas for the prize each year. The closing date for the first prize is 30 September.

"The sustainability lies in the fact that an African is solving an African problem and we are recognising an African for it, and by so doing we want to create an environment [in which] having good ideas can lead to something positive. That is far more sustainable than millions of people coming to help Africa," Opoku-Mensah said.

The AIF hopes the prize will lead to increased commercialisation of research and development, the adoption of emerging technologies, and accelerated growth of the private sector in Africa.

For the first five years the AIF will provide the prize money. Then UNECA, which is administering the initiative, will be responsible for finding funding sources.

Daniel Adinew, an Ethiopian software developer, said the initiative will generate a competitive spirit among those already engaged in innovation and attract others to the creative sector.

"Innovative work done for competition will always have better quality than any other done otherwise," he added. "That will help speed up national technological development in the continent."

Last year UNECA launched the African Science, Technology and Innovation Endowment Fund, which will support similar initiatives.