There is a general consensus about the importance of innovation and how it is critically required if anything will change significantly for most developing economies, many of which are here in Africa. I am particularly obsessed with Africa and very passionate to see this continent transform from being the “poorest continent” that the world knows it to be, into the “Wakanda” that we know it has the potential of becoming.
“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” We cannot wish Africa into prosperity. We cannot wish poverty, unemployment, unproductivity, corruption and bad leadership away. We need something practical to replace them with, and we all agree that Africa is lacking enough of innovation to help her maximise her potential. Blessed with so much natural resources, but unable to make good of most of them, and we can’t blame God, He has tried for Africa.
The kind of innovation we need in Africa is what I call “innovation at scale.” We cannot go far when all the innovation our countries depend on are done by just a few people who happen to be the key founders and entrepreneurs launching a few successful businesses in small pockets and few hubs around the continent. We need to celebrate these few outliers who swim against the current, but we also need to push for the kind of innovation that happens in every community, in every school and on every street, but by individuals and entrepreneurs and even in government.
The scale of innovation we need is the kind where on every street, someone is seeing a problem and converting it into an opportunity without expecting an imaginative character called “the government” to fix every problem that exists, from poor water supply, to proper disposal or recycling of waste, irrigation for round-the-year agriculture, household electricity and sometimes even down to very minute things as preserving or processing farm produce. Our minds have been conditioned to expect that everything is the responsibility of the government, and ours is just to be taken care of.
It is a lack of innovation at scale that makes us find someone to blame for everything that is not working. Agreed, corruption and sub-par leadership has been a problem in Africa for long, and let’s also accept as many have insisted that most of the pre-colonial systems set up African economies for exploitation and to remain behind. But deeper than that, there’s an army of over a billion people who seem to have just raised up their hands in surrender and shut down their brains and minds to innovation, believing that ‘all has been decided’ and leaving everything else to just a few outlier innovators who decide to swim against the tide.
But enough with my lecture. That’s not why you’re here. We’ve talked enough about the problem. How do we inspire and catalyse enough innovation to go round every street, community, school, campus, company and government in Africa?
Innovation does not happen in a vacuum. A good meal does not just appear on the table all by itself. There are ingredients required, a recipe to be followed and a process that actually executes the recipe.
Putting together elements from the work of amazing researchers who have done extensive work on creativity and innovation such as Teresa Amabile, Tony Wagner, Clayton Christensen and more, I have been able to identify three key elements required for creativity.
- Expertise: there can’t be innovation without knowledge and expertise in some domain or field. You can’t innovate out of nothing. Innovation needs to be fueled by knowledge. So before we complain about people not being innovative, we need to first answer the question of expertise. Is there something they are very good at? There is a popular saying that “if your only tool is a hammer, you’ll see every problem as a nail”. The hidden message in that quote is that to even see or recognise a problem, you need to first have a tool, and I agree totally with that. The IT expert will see a tech-based solution to every problem. A financial expert will see a money-based solution to every problem. People need expertise if they’ll be innovative because you interpret problems and analyse possible solutions with the lens of your expertise. This explains why a rise in tech expertise naturally gives birth to a boom in tech innovation. Want to see more tech-driven innovation? Teach more people tech skills.
- Creative Thinking Skills: expertise alone is not sufficient for innovation. If it was, our universities which are full of professors would be churning out innovation on a daily basis. But we have professors who have deep domain expertise in their fields but have not been able to create anything. The ingredient lacking here is creative thinking. Much of our education has been a one-way-traffic system that focuses on memorising facts, data and information, mostly just to store them in our brains to be able to pass exams and earn certifications, resulting mostly in the ability to write papers and deliver lectures. The critical elements of being able to ask the right questions, make connections between problems, observe, experiment and collaborate are all missing. Until our education systems take a u-turn and begin to emphasise creativity over memorization, we can only wish for transformation, but we’ll remain as far from it as we are today.
- Motivation: this in many cases is considered to be the most important of the three core-ingredients required for innovation. Expertise and Creative thinking skills are like raw materials which an individual needs to possess, but what he or she will do with those raw materials is totally dependent on their motivation level. Something must move people to act. At the heart of every entrepreneurial innovation, there is a story. Usually, when you listen to the story of a founder, you’ll find what the motivation was, because there is always one. Sometimes, the motivation could be extrinsic – coming from an outside source, such as a reward or funding that could come if they won a hackathon or competition, or the motivation could be intrinsic – coming from inside, usually fuelled by a passion or interest that arose because of a personal experience, frustration or an inspiration, for example someone could be innovating around a system for effective blood donation and delivery because they lost a close relative due to shortage of blood supply in the hospital. People need something to drive them and keep them going through the innovation or creative process, and that’s where motivation comes in.
If we want to see innovation at scale in Africa, we need to start having conversations around these items. There are more questions than there are answers, and the last thing we need is someone coming to us pretending to have all the answers. What we really need is a primer with the right questions that will drive us towards thinking about how to make expertise and creative thinking skills available to the average citizen irrespective of their level of education or social status or ability to afford 5-star schools, and then we need to figure out ways to motivate and inspire people to deploy their ‘raw materials’ in the right direction.
Until we are able to mass produce innovation in Africa, we would never achieve our potential for growth and self-sufficiency. While the world sees the poorest continent in the world, we all see a potential to become the fictitious ‘Wakanda’ that is the envy of the world. The gap is in our people, and we can produce that level of innovation at scale if we put in the right ingredients and the right processes. I believe it is possible.