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Innovating with Meaning: What’s The Incentive?

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It’s really easy to spot innovation sometimes because it fits our pre-conceived notions of what innovation looks like. But innovation can sometimes be spotted in the pedestrian things of life. I use the term ‘innovate with meaning’ a lot and it can seem abstract to some. It simply means “to bring a sense of significance or meaning to peoples’ lives through innovation“. That’s my definition.

How do enterpreneurs in the small business sector innovate? What factors drive their decisions to create products and services that bring meaning to the majority? The lower end of the retail market in Kenya, and probably most of East Africa, is characterized by single-serve packaging of essential goods. That segment is now commonly referred to as the satchet economy. Satchets have brought products down to the people who couldn’t afford them before. Not all satchets originate with the manufacturer however. One can easily buy KSh.20 worth of sugar, a single diaper and a cup of flour in the low-income neighbourhoods of Nairobi. The enterpreneurs in this areas saw a problem and found a way to solve it by breaking bulk (even where ‘bulk’ ¬†being broken is a 500g pack of tea leaves).

In the local technology space however, this ¬†push towards the low-income majority has not been pervasive. A large number of the apps we see are designed for the more tech savvy middle income urbanite. So why aren’t techpreneurs building mobile services that solve real world problems for the majority in the BoP? Is it a lack of awareness about the fortune that lies at the base of the pyramid? Is it a lack of information about the needs of these customers? Is there no incentive to innovate for social good?

While all these may be true, incentivizing innovation for social good may lead to greater demand for research and consequently (simplistically speaking) greater awareness and opportunities. The Kenyan Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information Eng. Bitange Ndemo in a recent response to a post on a discussion list said “We must subordinate our individual interest and pride for the greater benefits that change society.”

We need to find ways of encouraging innovators in Africa to create thick value for the BoP consumer even if it means ‘subordinating [their] individual interest and pride’ for a cause bigger than themselves.

Any ideas on how the government and/or the private sector can help do this?

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Written by Muchiri Nyaggah

January 13th, 2011 at 11:39 pm

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