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In search of the meaning of African innovation

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Mention the word Innovation and few people would have anything concrete to say about Africa.
The Western response is predictable – Apple is the easy answer. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, GE and P&G round out the list. Others will point to any number of hot startups coming out of Silicon Valley.

Ravi Chhatpar
Ravi Chhatpar, Executive Strategy Director at frog (Africa, Asia, Middle East). Image Credit: IT News Africa

More nuanced answers may point to the contributions of fundamental R&D-heavy industries like pharmaceuticals and chemicals. A deeper probing may result in stories about the Western education system, its entrepreneurial and funding culture, or how innovations spread through social messaging and communication.

I have spent much of the last eight and a half years in Asia, mainly in China, spending a lot of time thinking about the Asian innovation story.

It is easy to get caught up in relativist positions – Japanese mobile and automotive brands used to be globally dominant through their cutting-edge innovations, but have since dropped off.

The big Korean consumer technology brands like Samsung and LG are fast-followers behind the true US innovators like Apple – and what about China? It is the manufacturing centre of The world, with true sophistication in the factory and in product development, but traditionally viewed condescendingly as a source of derivations, not innovations. Made in China, but not designed, invented or innovated in China.

What is fascinating to me is that in recent years, this Chinese “innovation” story has started to change – through both the deliberate and unconscious efforts and strategies of domestic companies, multinationals, media and governments. And what is beginning to emerge is not a rationalization of why Chinese innovation is behind Western innovation, or what has to change to make Chinese innovation more appreciated by the West, but a realization that Chinese innovation is something that is fundamentally different. So different, in fact, that it may represent an alternate model of innovation altogether. Savvy parties are trying to take advantage of this posture.
And what is this posture exactly? It is hard to describe it succinctly, but it involves a few things. It suggests that smarter localization of an innovation can be as important, if not more important, than the innovation itself, requiring a truly sophisticated understanding of unmet needs and a truly inspired manifestation of a solution.

It holds that highly accelerated product development – meaning orders of magnitude as well as faster hardware and software development than in the West (weeks vs. years) – can be a more important source of competitive advantage than the product itself. It claims devaluation of IP is not intrinsically bad because it makes you a more forward thinking, agile player if you learn how to plan six steps ahead.

In its ultimate form, it claims that reverse innovation is not incidental or opportunistic, but must be the way global companies think about innovation in all of their categories. Inspiration from foreign and distant markets is better inspiration, required to ensure companies do not get caught in the trap of evolutionary innovation or become overly complacent about markets in which they have achieved prior success.

The provocation here is that Chinese innovation is a fundamental counterpoint to Western innovation. It sharpens it, refines it, scales it and accelerates it – and is therefore essential.

What about African innovation? What is it? What does it mean for Africa? What does it mean for the world? What is Africa’s innovation posture?

As a relative newcomer to Africa, I will not claim to know the answers, if any exist at all. But I will attempt to offer some insights based on the experience of the company I work for – frog, a global innovation consultancy.

At frog, our job is to uncover opportunities to innovate for our clients and turn these opportunities into meaningful products, services, and businesses. Discovering the innovation opportunities is the first step in our process.
Sometimes we have a pretty good sense of where the opportunities are and the real challenge is to come up with ideas to take advantage of the opportunity. More often, we may have some initial hypotheses, but it takes deep research into consumer needs and motivations, market dynamics as well as technology trends to frame the right opportunities.

Although the diversity of our work makes it hard to generalize, there does seem to be one major determinant of how rich and provocative the innovation opportunities may be. This determinant is connectivity – not just connectivity in the popular sense of Internet access, but in its broadest possible sense: the connectivity between people, brands, institutions, activities, and events, enabled by a variety of technologies that bring these players together, from roads to mobile phones to social media.

The reason this connectivity – indeed, hyper-connectivity in many ways – is so important is because its increase gives rise to new meaning. Think about the meaning that is created by a new road between two cities or a phone conversation between two parties who have never interacted.

These new pockets of meaning are the foundations for new products and services that enable new relationships and new behaviours. And this is what innovation is ultimately trying to achieve: the creation of fundamentally new relationships and behaviours.

So what does this have to do with African innovation? A lot! Africa’s most notable innovations– those that have had the greatest impact on the lives of people and that have also achieved global recognition – have emerged spectacularly from unique connectivity conditions.

M-Pesa is the obvious example. The original concept solved a very constrained connectivity problem, being a burning need to send money home quickly and securely. It scaled due to particular connectivity enablers – a regulatory environment enabling commercial bank backing and a broad distribution network.

African mHealth innovations like mPedigree are impressive for similar reasons. In this case, drug brands have strong distribution networks, but this network did not carry the trust needed to combat equally prevalent counterfeit drugs. This is another extreme connectivity problem, solved through mPedigree’s innovative drug verification system.
What is fascinating about Africa is that, compared to many places in the world, connectivity seems to work in extremes and in contradictions. Physical infrastructure may be poor, but mobile connectivity is high. Relationships with brands may be tenuous, but real-world social networks are meticulously groomed. Trust in formal institutions may be decreasing, but trust in operators and the cloud and other technology abstractions is on the increase.

These connectivity conditions are both provocations and constraints, which are often the best springboards for meaningful innovation.

I believe this represents the real posture for African innovation: a unique set of connectivity considerations that can create high impact, highly meaningful, game-changing innovations. These types of innovations make significant differences to the communities they target and help elevate the conversation of the importance of African innovation to the global level.

Ravi Chhatpar, Strategy Director at Frog
(Culled from African Innovator Magazine V01)

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