In preparation for my TEDxGaborone 2017 talk, I was interviewed by Afrolutionist’s Mmabatho Motsamai. We discussed digital innovations and Africa’s prospects for the future.
MM: We are looking at the fourth industrial revolution – where the digital world will encompass the global economic process. In your view, how can Africa practically harness this as an opportunity to reduce economic inequality?
EO: I think it is important that we understand that the digital world rests upon a very analog world. We might applaud digital innovations such as the Internet, Uber, and mobile telephony. But we would do ourselves a disservice if we didn’t understand the analog foundations upon which those digital innovations rest. For the Internet to thrive, we need servers which are typically invisible, but very much analog in the sense that they are physical and must exist with a set of systems and processes to ensure they are functional. For Uber to exist, we need good roads, traffic laws, drivers, and people must have places to go. All of which are analog. And last but not least, for mobile telephony to thrive, we need base stations, roads, generators and fuel that power the base stations (at least in many poor countries in Africa), and engineers.
With that as a backdrop, Africa (governments) and Africans (citizens) would do themselves a disservice in thinking that we can simply take advantage of the digital revolution without doing the hard work of laying the proper analog foundation. However, with that said, digitization presents us with unprecedented opportunities if we harness it properly.
First, we must train our people properly. Not just in what we think they should know, but in the skills that are required to help them find gainful employment. Digitization makes this easier. 50 years ago, we needed brick and mortar to build a school; today, we simply need a smart phone. Let’s leverage that. Second, we can digitize many of the systems and processes in our countries so they become more efficient and root out corruption. For instance, appropriately digitizing property rights can help reduce corruption in many countries. Third, digitization affords the continent the opportunity to profit from initiatives that were historically impossible. African engineers can collaborate with European engineers on projects, inserting themselves into a global digital supply chain that is emerging.
MM: Innovation is commonly preconceived as an ideal which utilizes technological processes which at times, cannot apply into Africa’s economic and market climate – with misfortune to service smaller markets. What do you believe innovation in Africa’s context truly is?
EO: At the Clayton Christensen Institute, we have a very simple definition for innovation. We define innovation as the “way or process by which people in a particular context decide to solve their problems.” As such innovation then can be high-tech or low-tech, digital or analog. It is simply the solutions we create to solve our problems. When considered in that way, then African innovation must focus on how Africans or those who care about Africa solve distinctly African problems. Innovations that have solved American, European, or Chinese problems that are transplanted to Africa must be shaped, formatted, and contextualized to solve the African problem.
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, we write about several African innovators that are developing innovations focused on solving African problems. These innovations range from advances in agriculture and food processing to biotech solutions. But the common thread that links them all is that they are focusing on the African context. As a famous African proverb reminds me, “don’t set sail using someone else’s star.” We must find our star and set sail accordingly.
MM: Alleviating poverty is one of your concerns, can you grant us more insight on Poverty Stops Here, as well as its impact in the continent?
EO: In 2008 I read about a ten year old girl that had to wake up at 3am every day to sell firewood. My life was never the same again. I had to do something. With the help of some friends, we founded Poverty Stops Here. The organization raises funds and invests in education and provides microloans to people. Over the past seven years, Poverty Stops Here has raised more than $300,000 and invested those funds in five different communities in Nigeria. will be the first to admit that Poverty Stops Here is not the way to create economic prosperity for Africa. It serves as a band aid and provides temporary relief. However, Africans must fundamentally change how we tackle the problem of poverty.
Our research has taught me that “prosperity is created by brilliant minds and not necessarily bleeding hearts. It is achieved by working hands, and not necessarily helping hands.” As such we must change our development strategy. Helping is good. And it is important. But that cannot be the foundation for which a nation, much less a continent, develops. Development is rooted in the productive capacity of citizens leveraging technology and innovation to make progress in their lives.
MM: Although the continent has its economic shortcomings, young social entrepreneurs are answering problems through a business lens. Do you believe this as a sustainable practice and if so, where do you envision Africa’s future if the practice of social entrepreneurship becomes cultured across the continent?
EO: I believe that as important as the social entrepreneur is, more important is simply – the entrepreneur. We forget that it is the entrepreneur that creates the most employment that has the most societal impact. It is she who reduces crime because people have productive work; it is she who reduces corruption because people have a viable alternative to provide for themselves and their families; it is she who enables people purchase life-saving medication with their income; it is she who enables parents send children to school. It is simply the entrepreneur that is at the core of the societal advancement from a social standpoint.
As such, we must cultivate an environment that supports the entrepreneurs that are trying to solve our most pressing problems using profitable business models. Professor Michael Porter at the Harvard Business School writes about Shared Value and how the impact of profits isn’t just limited to shareholders, but also consumers. Profits help us scale our impact. So, if an entrepreneur figures out a profitable way to reduce maternal mortality in Nigeria for instance, she is more likely to scale and have more of an impact than an organization that depends on funding from international development agencies.
MM: Based on your tweet on January 13 “When you rely on market analyst reports to tell you the market size of an industry, its already too late. Winners create markets” as well as your research at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at the Harvard Business School (HBS) You are more inclined to creating new markets as to infiltrating existing markets. Can you share rationale to this?
EO: Every existing market that seems obvious to us today was once created. It is the creation process that is the most difficult, but it is also the creation process that provides the most opportunity for wealth creation and societal impact. Take automobiles as an example. In the early 1900s, the idea that the average American would drive around in cars was unheard of. There were really no roads in the country. At least none designed for cars. Cars were reserved for the rich and were a symbol of wealth as the rich used it primarily for joy-riding. And cars were built mostly by craftsmen and were custom made. Market analysts would not have projected the proliferation of automobiles.
But American innovator and market-creator, Henry Ford, was determined to fill the American landscape with automobiles. He built a company that standardized many things, including the production of automobiles, thereby reducing the cost to a point that the average American could afford one. It was only after he proved it was possible that the market analysts came in to “size the market” and to “assess the competition.” At that point in the game, the winners are already chosen. It doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity, but the most opportunity comes when one creates the market. Understandably, it is also very difficult because the innovator has to convince consumers that they need a product they might not realize they need.
One interesting factoid I always tell people is that the television was projected to fail. A journalist for the NY Times wrote in the 1930s that no one would ever sit in front of this device for hours, especially when we had the radio that enabled us do other things as we listened to its sounds. Oh was he wrong. But so it is with market-creation. You must be able to visualize and then create the future. Africa needs more innovators that create markets than innovators that simply steal market share from existing markets. Not only are the developmental impacts greater for the market creators, but the investment returns are also significantly higher.
Efosa Ojomo will be speaking at this year’s TEDxGaborone in Maitisong on 31st March 2017. Grab your ticket and become part of a transcending experience.