Africa has numerous challenges such as physical infrastructure, energy and housing deficit, access to clean water, low literacy levels, low insurance penetration, lack of financial inclusion, rising cases of non-communicable diseases, just to mention a few. This should be good news for the many local innovators, who have discovered that these challenges can be overcome without the same level of effort and investment the western world had invested in solving similar problems.
However, with a narrow view of what innovation is and how innovation will solve African problems, innovation won’t be sustainable, if not strategic, for Africa. It will only work in the long term if the innovators and organisations put people at the centre of everything they do.
But it must first be recognised that without innovation, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist. The ability to see potential to make work and life easier, winning over competitors, making profits, satisfying customer needs and bringing new ideas to the table, has been making the world go around for thousands of years and the 21st century is no exception.
Not only wouldn’t there be any smartphones, cars, TVs or radios, but there also wouldn’t be any wheels, axis, even light to see past the darkness we would be locked in. Even with all that has been achieved, we still live in an era of innovation. A lot has been accomplished and a lot more needs to be accomplished.
In conference halls, breakfast meetings from south of Sahara to north of Limpopo, everyone is talking of this new app, big data, new technological advancement. Even the Government of Kenya has set a taskforce on blockchain technology.
When one travels to China, Dubai, Europe, the US, it’s all about how we can use blockchain, for instance, to sort out election problems in Africa, construction sector, corruption, banking, insurance — it’s tiring.
Even my over 100-year-old grandmother Susana Wanyanga last time I visited asked me whether the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] has opened the election servers in Nairobi as ordered by the Supreme Court.
And she also knows something called technology. She says she heard most people believe it will solve the election woes in Kenya. What she knows well and how it works is M-Pesa. This is because this innovation was at the heart of a human challenge and it brought a human solution. Most of these hyped technologies, blockchain, big data, and artificial intelligence are solutions waiting for a market and have not thought of how people are at the center.
Just like earlier scientists shifted from the belief that the earth is at the centre of the universe to acknowledging that the sun is at the centre of the universe, innovators should have a wider view of technology.
This will cure the challenge of everyone only thinking about apps, technology. Being innovative isn’t just about disruptive ideas, cool apps, or hot new technology any more. Today innovation, if it’s strategic, means diving deep into the DNA of our company and society and changing the way we think, act, sometimes even changing who we are.
Let’s not forget that the idea that human beings are at the centre of everything was popular throughout history of civilisation. That’s how we transitioned from earlier civilisation to current civilisation.
From the discovery of fire, the wheel, different foods to emergence of different civilisations and functions everything has been human-centred. However, the idea that everything revolves around us (human beings) has been replaced by other theories, with sometimes-detrimental consequences.
Talk of global warming, HIV/Aids, creation of weapons of mass destruction, if not mass murder, communist regimes, capitalistic tendencies, socialism among other challenges.
But with innovation, and developing and designing of products and services, for human delight, we are getting back to the beginning. Let’s put the human in the centre again.
That sounds like US President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “making America great again”, but this is not an election where we have options between Clinton and Trump. This is about destiny, an era that if messed up can’t be corrected with mid-term elections — if not the next generation election.
Innovation can only be strategic if corporate leaders and heads of governments accept that we are human beings. We all have different personalities, strengths and shortfalls. In that regard, embrace diversity that opens the doors to new ideas and approaches.
Be open, transparent, and most importantly, let yourself and others fail. Value every failure for bringing new ideas and experiences that you would have never acquired if not for the failure. It pays to look at failure as an investment — in your employees, their personal nurturing — that provides real experience.
Accept mistakes. Accepting people for who they really are means accepting that innovation and shift in mindset don’t happen overnight. You learn to be patient.
You realise that you cannot force the change, as it needs time to spread through the whole company, society, and community. Appreciating people on a personal level has become crucial in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world; a world in which all we know needs to be challenged. Challenge the system, ask what is not working any more and change it. But also appreciate how we got there and only keep what is efficient and flexible. The ever-changing business environment requires continual iteration and searching for the right ideas for your company, your customers and society as a whole.
Don’t just stick with the first thought you have that will be satisfying, meaning picking the first idea of innovation that meets the minimum requirement but not exploring an optimal solution for the changing and challenging business environment. But be prepared for the many changes that will be needed along the way.
It will be a long and painful journey, but it will be a meaningful one, and if done properly, it will bring profit to your company as well as to society.
Academic Director MBA programmes, Director of the Institute of Strategy and Competitiveness and Senior Lecturer of Strategy and Decision Making at Strathmore Business School.
This article was published on Business Daily