Are We Really Innovating?

IImagennovation is a word that is increasingly being bandied about in Ghana. As our tech sector rises and government continues to push for increased entrepreneurial efforts, innovation has become the catch-word of the day. There are certainly plenty of ‘push and pull’ factors in favour of greater innovation from especially the youth of this country.

We have a power and water crisis which successive governments have failed to solve and a dire unemployment situation that leaves much of our youth stuck at home with no viable employment. If there was ever a time for innovation in our society it is now.

Unfortunately, local innovation is not yet a common theme in our society and businesses. We are a people faced with a slew of problems in several sector however there are very few local solutions presented to tackle those problems in innovative ways. There are still too few examples to speak of in terms of local innovation that are visible and well-known.

Many of our ‘innovative’ products and services, outside the fashion/creative sector, come from foreign sources with little local input. The other unfortunate problem is our local glorification of some of these imports as true innovation. This unnecessarily lowers the standards for innovation and does not push our people to pursue true innovation.

But how can we innovate more. What exactly is innovation itself and what forms of it can local entrepreneurs and businesses undertake? To tackle this I shall make use of Greg Satell’s ‘Innovation Matrix’, which takes into account 4 major types of innovation: Basic Research, Sustaining Innovation, Breakthrough Innovation, and Disruptive Innovation.

Basic Research

At this level, there may be no clearly defined problem or need that is to be addressed but it is just as important as any of the other stages. Research is meant to deepen knowledge in a particular subject, and out of that new products or services may rise to either complement existing solutions or solve previously unsolved problems. Institutional Research in western countries has led to most of the innovations we enjoy today. ARPANet for example was a precursor of the Internet and developed through US Department of Defense Research alongside several Universities in the country. IBM Research has led to innovations such as Magnetic Disk Storage, FORTRAN(programming language), and Relational Databases.

Unfortunately in Ghana, technology research is more often relegated to an academic pursuit than a business one. To be fair we have excellent facilities focusing on medical (The Noguchi Memorial Institute) and Agricultural (Cocoa Research Institute) Research. However, we remain lacking in any major centre for technology related research and innovation. Local firms appear to focus more on market research than product development research. even among local technology firms, none has yet come out as a centre for innovation and valuable technology research. If innovation is to become more prevalent in our society we must begin by encouraging research in all sectors especially in technology.

Steps must be taken not only in increasing the amount of product development research our businesses do but also in the respect which we give to research work done by our academic institutions. There is a treasure trove of ideas and industry understanding that exists in the published journals and research works of our own academics. Yet, very little of that research appears to result in in innovations that solve many of the problems we face daily. Google came out of doctoral research by PhD students at Stanford University, perhaps soon we can see the next great technology innovation will come from a marriage of local research and local entrepreneurship.

Sustaining Innovation

Innovation does not always have to result in a completely new product or service. Perhaps the most commonly practiced form of innovation is sustaining innovation which involves innovating around an existing product or service to constantly improve it and ensure it matches users needs.

There are still far too many local organizations that wait too long until there is a threat of competition before they begin to think about innovating around their product.  This form of innovation, if practiced well can help a firm maintain a constant, healthy advantage over their competitors. It is especially useful for businesses whose products have already established a firm market position and only need to maintain it. An excellent example of this is practiced by Apple. Much of their innovation since the original release of the iPhone and iOS has involved only small, incremental changes to these products to maintain their market leadership.

iOS has only had changes to core apps and some minor changes to effect social integration but throughout the product lifecycle the interface of iOS has remained largely unchanged. In terms of the iPhone and iPad, only small changes to hardware occur between versions. In fact you’d be hard-pressed to find any casual iDevice user who could name many discernible differences between different product versions. However, these incremental changes have remained enough so far in helping Apple maintain market leadership.

Breakthrough Innovation

Breakthrough innovation occurs when there is a clearly defined problem in an industry or sector and a solution is found for it. This is easily the most recognizable form of innovation because it directly meets a stated need and does so in a novel manner. For example, if a cure for AIDS is found today it will be a breakthrough innovation.  Breakthrough innovation often occurs through individuals or teams that have skill sets across various disciplines. Ghana as a nation has great need of this kind of innovation considering the great developmental challenges facing us. Breakthrough innovations can give us solutions to longstanding problems such as

  • providing quality education to a majority of our people,
  • large-scale access to potable water,
  • the convergence of public records
  • traffic systems management
  • tax revenue collection and assurance
  • medical records storage and accessibility

Breakthrough innovations are one area in which government sponsorship of a partnered effort with individual and institutional actors can yield great results. Since many of these problems are public in nature government leadership in seeking solutions is very often necessary to spur development.

An example of such currently ongoing innovation is in space exploration. The U.S. government agency, NASA is relying on partnered research and innovation with private firms to develop the next generation of crewed spacecraft. These innovations are meant to help the U.S. government solve the problem of getting crew up to the International Space Station (ISS) efficiently and safely.

Another problem being similarly tackled is the problem of the design and dissemination of electronic medical records (EMR) in the United States. The White House approached solving this problem by inviting individuals and private organisations to submit proposals for a revamped EMR system. The winning proposals would be funded for development and implemented. I see no reason why the Government of Ghana could not institute a similar scheme to source ideas and provide funding for an innovative revamp of our own EMR systems.

Disruptive Innovation

This form of innovation is often the most difficult to identify and exploit. A disruptive innovation is one which attempts to disrupt a market such that it either creates an entirely new way of meeting a need or it meets need which consumers are not yet aware that they have.

An example of the former is the iTunes Store. For years before its release, people purchased music via physical media solely. However, the launch of the iTunes Store in 2003 and its business model, which allowed in individual songs to be sold for a small amount in .mp3 format, revolutionized the industry. It also provided the option of purchasing single songs instead of entire records which granted a major boost to music sales. CDs and their like were quickly relegated to the backdrop as consumers focused on purchasing their music in soft form to be consumed on devices like their iPods.

Disruptive innovations are risky innovations as they tend to branch off into entirely new areas that often times do not make business sense immediately. Mobile is one area in particular in Africa and the world that is producing and has the potential to produce many more disruptive innovations.

Ghana and Africa especially are ripe for disruptive innovations that will help us have new and unique ways of solving our problems and running our affairs. The rise of M-Pesa in Kenya is one example of this as Africans there are using mobile technology for payments in ways no western country even thought about or uses. The problem truly in our local context is obtaining the trust and funding for these innovations to be realized as fully-fledged products and services.

The western world, especially the United States, has many venture capitalists and angel investors simply looking for ways in which they can back (financially) disruptive innovations. That is unfortunately very far from our reality where even ordinary business concepts find it difficult to secure funding.

Where are we heading?

We have a long way to go before we can claim to be creating and maintaining a culture of innovation in the country. Though there are many examples of accidental innovation, most important innovations have come from a concerted and serious effort at research and development. Our businesses must aim not only to dominate sales within their sector but to truly innovate and lead in their chosen area. IBM as a business today has lasted for over a hundred years due to immense forward thinking and a decision to remain relevant in a fast-changing world of technology. Our businesses must aim to do the same.

Our research efforts must expand from solely the agricultural and medical fields to embrace the application of new technologies to solve our relevant problems. Beyond that, our students and other researchers must be given the confidence that any research work they do is not going to be relegated only to dusty bookshelves but that such research work will serve to immediately impact our society and country for the better.

Our nascent technology sector is one that is particularly disappointing yet at the same time hopeful. Unfortunately much of the tech work and tech businesses that are arising today are focused more on copying and implementing established solutions for our local market, rather than developing local solutions. Making use of others solutions is not necessarily a bad thing but many of these solutions are rarely innovated upon to suit the local market or to provide a unique proposition for our locale.

Let me put it this way, we unfortunately have lots of businesses currently who would rather create exactly the same kind of ‘pure water’ and sell it as barely-differentiated competition. Certainly such business models help solve any issue of quantity but rarely address quality. Such businesses can certainly take the effort to design their own kind of ‘pure water’ with perhaps a different design or another innovative factor.

To such developers my advice is simple, copy-pasting other’s solutions may earn you a quick cedi, but if you have any interest in providing real solutions to our local problems the answer is simple. Innovate Don’t Duplicate.

However, as I said earlier, there is great cause for hope in the tech sector. Institutions such as M.E.S.T. are leading the charge by training developers with an eye for innovative solutions. Many tech solutions from that institution are already winning local and international awards for their work such as the recently honoured Saya and Dropifi. Even other

There is also a growing community of developers who are building and releasing their own applications, often innovative ones such as mobile games from the developers at Leti Games and solutions such as iWallet. This coupled with the government’s seeming commitment to building tech infrastructure such as technology parks is very encouraging for the future of local innovation.

The tools needed for innovation, especially in the tech sector are increasingly more accessible. In addition to programming courses offered by local institutions such as NIIT, there are now several free and quality online courses teaching computer science and programming. RLG’S CEO made the statement that the Hope City Project is meant to provide and help the youth with a place to develop ‘applications from scratch’. I’m pleased to disagree. Our youth do not need to wait for any multi-billion dollar facility to build innovative applications. The company Hewlett-Packard, was started in and released its first products from a garage, Facebook and Google were developed in university dormitories.  You can innovate in your single room, on your bed, in your university dorm room or even during the less busy periods in your shop kiosk.

We speak often as Ghanaians of the great needs we have as a country and as a people, well it’s time we allowed our necessity to be the mother of invention and innovation.

Share your thoughts in the comments below..

-Terence Adjei-Otchwemah
Executive, Digital Marketing & Media Relations
DreamOval Limited

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