From education to employment

First woman to win the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation

A Ghanaian technology entrepreneur has won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious 2020 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. Charlette N’Guessan is the first ever woman to win the Africa Prize, and the first winner from Ghana.

The 26-year-old N’Guessan and her team developed BACE API, a software that uses facial recognition and artificial intelligence to verify identities remotely. The software can be integrated into existing apps and systems and is aimed at financial institutions and other industries that rely on identity verification when providing services.

The BACE API software uses a phone or computer’s built-in camera and does not need special hardware, and in contrast to global AI systems, has been developed specifically to identify Africans.

While facial recognition software isn’t new, BACE API specifically uses live images or short videos taken on phone cameras to detect whether the image is of a real person, or a photo of an existing image.

N’Guessan wins the first prize of £25,000 (192,000 GHS). At the virtual awards ceremony held on 3 September 2020, four finalists delivered presentations, before Africa Prize judges and a live audience voted for the most promising engineering innovation.

The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK in 2014, is Africa’s biggest prize dedicated to engineering innovation, and has a proven track record of identifying successful engineering entrepreneurs. Now in its sixth year, it supports talented sub-Saharan African entrepreneurs with engineering innovations, that address crucial problems in their communities in a new and appropriate way.

N’Guessan and her co-founders developed the software in 2018 after research they did during their studies revealed that Ghana’s banks have a significant problem with identity fraud and cybercrime. The research estimated that approximately $400 million is spent annually by Ghanaian financial institutions to identify their customers.

In partnership with a data controller that deals with certified government-issued identity documents, BACE API has access to Ghanaian passports and other identity documents to use during its verification processes.

Two financial institutions are already using the software to verify customers’ identities, and the software is being tested on an event platform to confirm attendee registrations.

During the global pandemic, BACE API has emerged as a viable alternative to the in-person verification processes used by most businesses, such as fingerprints or personal appearances. Companies can now authenticate and onboard new or existing customers without ever meeting them.

The Africa Prize mentorship and training has helped the team focus more on their business development, and since being shortlisted, the team has defined strategies to improve BACE API’s market position. They have also signed key partnerships with local financial institutions, improved the accuracy of the model, and reduced the verification time.

James Duddridge MP, Minister for Africa, UK, said: “Congratulations to all the participants in this year’s Africa Prize. The UK is a hub of engineering innovation, and home to a wealth of entrepreneurial talent and experience. By partnering this talent with the most promising African innovators we can create local solutions to global challenges, transforming lives and improving economies.”

Fifteen shortlisted Africa Prize entrepreneurs, from six countries in sub-Saharan Africa, received eight months of training and mentoring, during which they developed their business plans and learned to market their innovations. The group received coaching on communicating effectively, focusing on customers and approaching investors with confidence.

The Africa Prize also connects the shortlist to individuals and networks in the UK and across Africa who can accelerate their business and technology development – from fellow entrepreneurs and mentors to potential investors and suppliers.

The Africa Prize supports the brightest minds across the continent, equipping them with skills to reshape and rethink their businesses.

“We are very proud to have Charlette N’Guessan and her team win this award,” said Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize judge and Cameroonian entrepreneur. “It is essential to have technologies like facial recognition based on African communities, and we are confident their innovative technology will have far reaching benefits for the continent.”

The three runners up, who each receive £10,000, are:

  • Farmz2U, Aisha Raheem from Nigeria – a digital platform that provides farmers with tailored agricultural data to improve their experience and efficiency.
  • PapsAI, Dr William Wasswa from Uganda – a low-cost digital microscope that speeds up cervical cancer screening diagnosis, and systems to improve patient record management.
  • Remot, David Tusubira from Uganda – a system that manages off-grid power grids by monitoring the condition of solar arrays.

“Being part of the Africa Prize has given us such confidence,” said N’Guessan. “We focus on Africa because we want to make sure BACE API is used by our people, and works for them. We are so grateful to the Academy, and cannot wait to take our innovation to new heights.”

To date, the 86 Africa Prize alumni businesses have raised more than 14 million USD in grants and equity and created more than 1500 new jobs, with over 50% of these going to women and a significant proportion to disabled people and youth.

The seventh Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation is now open. Individuals and teams living and working in sub-Saharan Africa, and who have an engineering innovation, are invited to enter. The deadline for entries is 14 September 2020.

Find out how to apply for the Africa Prize 2021

Notes to editors:

The other 11 candidates shortlisted for the Africa Prize 2020 were:

  • Aquaprotein, Jack Oyugi from Kenya – an affordable protein supplement for animal feed, made from invasive water hyacinth
  • CATHEL, Catherine Tasankha Chaima from Malawi – an affordable antibacterial soap made from agricultural waste and other plant-based extracts
  • CIST Ethanol Fuel, Richard Arwa from Kenya – a clean cooking ethanol made from invasive water hyacinth
  • DryMac, Adrian Padt from South Africa – a containerised drying system that uses burning biomass instead of electricity to dry and preserve crops
  • Eco Water Purifier, Timothy Kayondo from Uganda – a digital system that turns bones, cassava peelings, coconut shells and other waste into an activated carbon water filter
  • EcoRide, Bernice Dapaah from Ghana – bamboo bicycles made by Ghanaian women and youth from sustainable materials and recycled parts
  • Garbage In Value Out (GIVO), Victor Boyle-Komolafe from Nigeria – automates and digitises the collection, processing and sale of recyclable materials
  • GrainMate, Isaac Sesi from Ghana – a simple handheld meter to accurately measure the moisture content of grains to prevent rotting, insect infestation and quality reduction
  • Lab and Libraryon Wheels, Josephine Godwyll from Ghana – a mobile, solar-hybrid cart with gadgets and e-learning resources to encourage reading and teach STEAM subjects in under-resourced schools
  • Safi Organics, Samuel Rigu from Kenya – a novel chemical process that turns crop waste into a range of affordable fertilisers
  • Tree_Sea.mals Mini-Grid, Tracy Kimathi from Kenya – a solar system that powers communal refrigeration storage spaces in rural Kenya

    Access the full set of photographs and b-roll of the shortlisted ntrepreneurs

  1. About the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation
    The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering, is Africa’s biggest prize dedicated to engineering innovation. It awards crucial commercialisation support to ambitious African innovators developing scalable engineering solutions to local challenges, demonstrating the importance of engineering as an enabler of improved quality of life and economic development.

    An eight-month period of tailored training and mentoring culminates in a showcase event where a winner is selected to receive £25,000 along with three runners-up, who are each awarded £10,000.

    The Africa Prize is generously supported by The Shell Centenary Scholarship Fund and the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund.

    Judges and mentors of the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation have provided over 1,970 hours of support to entrepreneurs since the prize was established – this equates to a value of roughly £985,000 in support. This year, they are:

    Chair of judges: Malcolm Brinded CBE FREng, Past President of the Energy Institute, Chair of EngineeringUK
    Dr Ibilola Amao, Founder and Principal Consultant, Lonadek Global Services
    Rebecca Enonchong, Founder and CEO, AppsTech
    Dr John Lazar CBE FREng, Chair, Enza Capital, What3Words and KindLink

    The shortlist judging panel also included Mariéme Jamme, co-founder of Africa Gathering and founder of #iamtheCODE and SpotOne Global Solutions. Jamme has recently stepped down as Africa Prize judge.

  1. About the Royal Academy of Engineering
    The Royal Academy of Engineering is harnessing the power of engineering to build a sustainable society and an inclusive economy that works for everyone. In collaboration with our Fellows and partners, we’re growing talent and developing skills for the future, driving innovation and building global partnerships, and influencing policy and engaging the public.

    Together we’re working to tackle the greatest challenges of our age.

For media queries and interview requests, please contact:

Anzet du Plessis, Proof Africa on behalf of the Royal Academy of Engineering
[email protected]
+27 83 557 2322

UK and international
Alex Stephenson, April Six on behalf of the Royal Academy of Engineering
[email protected]
+44 7506 022 367

Related Articles