On December 6, 2022, I got the opportunity to attend the inaugural Investing in Innovation (I3) Access to Market event in Nigeria. The event was attended by 31 innovators from across Africa, several large multinational companies, development partners including the Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, and many forward thinking government stakeholders.
As someone who speaks at many conferences and events, this one was particularly special because it gave me hope that, with the right support, Africa has the capacity to not only build resilient healthcare systems but also a resilient economy.
First the event was focused on the innovators and, more specifically, connecting them to markets.
In our research, we study how nations can, not only escape poverty, but more importantly become prosperous. Investing in market-creating innovations is the key to this prosperity. Market-creating innovations transform complicated products and services into simple and affordable ones so many more people in society can afford them. These innovations transcend products and services. They are systems that fundamentally change the way people in a society access a product or service.
For example, in making the car affordable to tens of millions of Americans, Henry Ford’s Ford Motor Company had to build much more than a car. He invested in gas stations, car repair shops, distribution infrastructure and much more. The systems that support market-creating innovations require deliberate partnerships, significant capital, and government support.
The I3 Access to Market event in Nigeria was designed to support innovators with these resources. The event brought more than 50 potential partners that could help innovators get their products and services to many more people across Africa. In addition, each innovator received $50,000 to help support their work. And finally, key government stakeholders were in the room to learn the struggles of these innovators and to offer their support as well.
Second, the innovators were the experts in the room. One of the key themes at the event was learning from these innovators. Creating a market where none currently exists is not only difficult, but often seems impossible before the markets are created. As a result, the development organizations, large multinational companies, and government stakeholders in the room needed to learn from the innovators doing the hard work of democratizing access to their products and services.
For example, some of the innovators I met needed help with finding and retaining talent. Others needed short-term loan facilities to help them cover orders so as to prevent backlogs. And a few asked for help with growth strategy tips. In all my engagement with the innovators, the goal wasn’t to tell them how to do their work. It was to learn what was difficult as they did their work and how we could support them.
This is consistent with our research on effectiveness of development strategies. The ethos of the entire event was in line with pull strategies as opposed to push.
Lastly, I left the event without a clear sense of exactly what the answers to many of the challenges the innovators presented were and how we would go about helping them. Paradoxically, that’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, in designing development projects, we have become adept at defining solutions even before we truly understand the problems. We have also become experts at writing proposals with stellar KPIs, activities, outputs, and outcomes. But too many development projects fail to deliver on what they promise. In fact, if all the development proposals that were submitted and funded over the past ten years met their stated goals, poverty would likely be a thing of the past.
So, in that sense, leaving the event without truly knowing “the right answer” was actually a good thing. This raises the importance of innovation. One rarely invests in innovation when the answers are clear.
The I3 program is designed to support innovators doing the hard work of creating access to better healthcare supply chains across Africa. The intentional focus on connecting these innovators to markets that could help them scale their organizations gives me hope that change is coming. The program, by itself, will not transform Africa. But the principles it espouses, the hope it inspires, and the innovators it supports will.