Are we looking for innovation in the wrong places?

Are we looking for innovation in the wrong places?

Innovation is at the heart of our industry. New, business-changing ideas are what got most of us into this game and are what set a brilliant agency apart from an ordinary one. But creating amazing ideas means exposing ourselves to the right inspiration and currently we have a major blind spot – Africa.

I grew up in Mombasa, Kenya between the ages of five and 17 and I’ve always been fascinated by how the huge challenges that exist on the continent are overcome through guile and sheer bloody-mindedness. That drive exists now more than ever, and it means Africa is a hotbed of innovation both logistically and culturally. It’s a place I think we can learn a lot more from.

We might have a global connected economy but are often blinkered by looking for innovation solely through a Western cultural lens. We’re enthralled by Californian start-up culture and assume everyone else is playing the same game of catch-up. But Africa’s continental challenges – its vast size, its lack of infrastructure – are the very things that are driving its innovation, and the lack of a 20th century legacy system is something that people are turning to their advantage.

Across much of Africa electricity isn’t delivered by cables from centralised power stations because the distances are too great, so it must be delivered locally through solar panels. Because power availability is limited, users must come up with smart solutions to keep usage down. Laptops and desktop terminals aren’t readily available due to cost, so mobile phones become the preferred digital medium for anything from banking, to medical diagnoses, to music creation. Where great distances need to be crossed fast and cheaply, and roads are poor, drones provide the best solution for delivery. In areas blighted by waste, and low on natural resources, waste can become the source for anything from plastic timber replacements, to home-made 3D printers.

This doesn’t sound like a backward economy catching up to the first world, it sounds like the future that most western economies aspire to. Furthermore, alongside the African start-ups who are solving these problems, global businesses such as Netflix and Vodafone have tuned in to the potential of the continent.

The rock-star innovator to emerge from Africa in recent years is M-Pesa, ‘pesa’ being Swahili for money. It was launched as a mobile-phone-based payment service in 2007, by Vodafone for Safaricom and Vodacom - the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania. It has now grown into a phone-based network offering not only transfers and PayPal-type payments through PIN-secured SMS text messages, but a full banking and microfinancing service - all through a non-smartphone device. M-Pesa has given millions of people access to financial services and has reduced crime in largely cash-based societies. It has grown to become the most successful mobile-phone-based financial service in the developing world and has gone on to expand into South Africa, Afghanistan, India, Romania and Albania.

As well as major tech launches, innovation is emerging from the ground up. The Buni Hub innovation space in Tanzania was the first to produce a 3D printer from recycled discarded electronic waste a few years ago. Tech hub WoeLabs in Togo have now produced a miniature version and are looking to standardise manufacture on the same principles to start distributing machines to local schools and cafés.

Africa is also a place where start-up tech innovators from the rest of the world are starting to see opportunities. Zipline is a US start-up working mainly in Rwanda and Ghana and who are using autonomous drones to deliver vital medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas. They establish local teams to run and operate the system wherever they are active, and they have made over 14,000 deliveries, and flown over 1 million kilometers so far. This result is arguably the most extensive and reliable autonomous logistics system on the planet and one whose technology could be re-inherited back in the West.

Outside of technology, culture and cultural reach are also innovating fast in Africa through both local and global players. In South Africa, the Gqom music scene that emerged in Durban around 2010 existed almost exclusively on mobiles, with producers generating beats on their devices before distributing the tracks through WhatsApp groups. It’s grown to be a major cultural force, and new sub-genres have emerged made specifically to be played in the huge Durban shared-taxi network. This thriving culture makes our excitement about Spotify look a bit prehistoric.

Global players are also forced to innovate when they enter the African market. Last year, Netflix released its first African Netflix Original film, ‘Lionheart’. It tells the story of a woman challenging entrenched attitudes in a male-dominated business world - a brave first choice of subject locally. Yet the all-female Nigerian film team has been widely celebrated. A Netflix subscription is relatively expensive in Africa especially as data costs are high. Broadband data subscriptions generally range from around $58 a month in South Africa, up to $170 a month in Zimbabwe – a huge commitment in a continent of low wages – and means that broadband data access is available only to the emerging middle class. Driving down the cost of broadband and making mobile data more affordable will be a major battle over the next few years.

But more African productions are on the way. The content produced to make Netflix more relevant locally will flow back into the global Netflix network, making new stars, and opening up Western markets to new kinds of authentic African storytelling.

There are 5,351 miles from London to San Francisco but Nigeria’s thriving city of Lagos is 2,230 miles closer. We’re too often blind to the innovation that’s closer to us because it’s culturally more distant. One of the reasons our industry has this cultural gap is the shape of our advertising networks. Links between America and Europe are common, and businesses enthusiastically eye up the opportunities in southeast Asia, but links into Africa tend to be way down the priority list. We should change that. There is a competitive advantage to be had from understanding the African mentality and learning from their unique approach and experience. Africa can give you an edge. Hiring a Brazilian creative is the fashion currently sweeping London ad land, so why can’t Kenyans be next?

Guy Wieynk is the founder of Serum Consulting.

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