Looking back, many will remember 2020 as the year of the pandemic. Although this past year has undoubtedly been a crucible moment for governments, healthcare organizations, educators, frontline workers, and virtually every person on the planet, it’s also been defined by immense innovation.

In the US, companies like Everlywell helped slow the curve by rapidly developing at-home testing kits, and in Senegal, innovators used 3D machines to produce a $60 ventilator. But innovations weren’t limited to healthcare interventions. As the global economy took a hit, many organizations were forced to fundamentally redesign their business models.

As we continued to profile market-creating organizations in our #InnovatorsCreatingProsperity series, we were inspired by the fact that despite the daily onslaught of new challenges, innovators are persevering and coming up with creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Nowhere is this more true than in the emerging economies that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

For these innovators, challenges are nothing new. Guided by a shared goal to create prosperity, they’re continuing to make a difference in their respective industries and regions. Here we share four lessons we’ve learned from those we’ve profiled in 2020:

Insight 1: Emerging-economy challenges are actually opportunities for innovation

Innovating in emerging economies comes with a unique set of challenges. In these regions poor infrastructure, inadequate institutions, overt corruption, and little government support are often the norm, deterring some would-be innovators who are critical for jumpstarting the economy. But rather than wait for an enabling environment to come to pass, other innovators are turning these challenges into opportunities—even competitive advantages.

Take Metro Africa Xpress, a transportation services company aiming to make mobility safe, affordable, and accessible to underserved populations in Nigeria and beyond. Co-founder Adetayo Bamiduro explained,

“MAX is turning infrastructure barriers into a competitive advantage by creating its own driver licensing system, building a network of credit providers, implementing an IoT network to secure vehicles, providing digital wallets to drivers, and enabling mobile payments. MAX uses transaction data to build credit history and provide financial services to drivers.”

Insight 2: Successful businesses nail a “Job to Be Done”

One of the biggest insights from our research is that people are constantly seeking progress, however they define it. We call that progress their “Job to Be Done”. Understanding the specific job for which customers “hire” a product or service helps innovators more accurately develop products that align with what customers are already trying to accomplish. 

Unfortunately, businesses can sometimes fall into the trap of trying to solve too many problems for too many people. Businesses are far better off uncovering a single Job to Be Done, and developing a solution that helps customers make progress towards that end. Consider LULA, an innovative company in South Africa that offers urban commuters safe, quick, and reliable transportation by grouping riders from similar areas into crowd-sourced loops. We spoke with co-founder and CEO Velani Mboweni, who candidly explained why the company’s first iteration failed: it tried to do too much at once. His advice for other innovators:

“Avoid trying to be everything to everyone. Focus on one avenue and do it well; once that is done you can pursue another business line.” 

Insight 3: Observing what customers do is often more valuable than listening to what they say

The solution for uncovering customers’ Jobs to Be Done might seem straightforward: simply ask future customers what progress they’re trying to make. While these conversations are certainly helpful, it’s far more reliable to observe what they actually do. Regardless of the region—but certainly more so in emerging economies—people’s lives are filled with struggles. Oftentimes these struggles are difficult to talk about, making it challenging for innovators to truly understand how they can help customers make progress.

We spoke with Ikenna Nzewi, co-founder and CEO of Releaf, which is working to solve logistical challenges in the agricultural supply chain in Nigeria by scaling the sale of high-quality raw materials. Before starting Releaf, Nzewi and his co-founders observed that many palm processing factories were underutilized due to the scarcity of raw materials supplied by smallholder farmers and traders. But to really get at the problem—or rather the Job to Be Done of the farmers—Ikenna and his partners discovered it was essential to observe their future customers as closely as possible. He explained, 

“Customers will often sugar-coat challenges as it’s not comfortable to write that people are still cracking palm nuts with rocks.” 

Insight 4. When creating new markets, integration is key

In emerging economies, investing in operations that aren’t seen as core competencies of an organization’s business is absolutely necessary when creating new markets. Oftentimes the underlying infrastructure isn’t there, so new businesses have no choice but to fill in the gaps themselves. 

For Babban Gona, a social enterprise that helps farmers increase their productivity by building mini farmer cooperatives, this meant integrating education into their business model. Founder and managing director, Kola Masha, shared,

“[One] challenge we’ve faced has been training and upskilling employees in preparation for scale, which we’ve addressed by proactively putting into place two training programs aimed at enhancing the skills of our employees across all levels of the organization.”

It’s unclear what the new year will look like, but we’re sure of one thing: innovators will forge ahead, helping their customers lead more productive lives, and creating shared prosperity in the process. We’re excited to continue sharing their stories and insights.

We want to hear from you: are there other #InnovatorsCreatingProsperity you’d like to see us cover in the new year? Let us know in the comments.


  • Efosa Ojomo
    Efosa Ojomo

    Efosa Ojomo is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and co-author of The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty. Efosa researches, writes, and speaks about ways in which innovation can transform organizations and create inclusive prosperity for many in emerging markets.