There is a word that pops up in every article, speech, discussion, policy paper and general conversation, it is INNOVATION. It is almost losing its meaning, it is used reflexively to imply, being cool, modern, hip, but what does it mean?
Necessity being the mother of invention, Africans have more necessity to invent than Europeans but we invent less. Africans are good at adapting objects for their daily use. This is the paradox– innovation is nothing without adaptation and good adaptation requires innovation. So an African can reuse scrap innovatively but he’ll never put a patent on it.
Innovation is seen as essential, like Chairman Mao called for constant revolution, we demand constant innovation whether it is needed or not. Innovation is everlasting in some ways, design is the best example of permanent innovation.
The Bauhaus movement in the early part of the 20th Century sat down and redesigned every household object and items of daily use. Almost every item you see around in your house and office was designed by them; the swivelling office chair, the urinal, the chair with a foldable table, clean steel furniture, modern telephone, and many more. Some of these designs are 100 years old and unchanged, true innovation lasts forever.
So then you have a contradiction, true innovation is rare, most of what we see is just good adaptation. So a BMW designer can curve the lines on the latest model and call it innovation, yet all he did was change the angle of a car.
Then here you can find extreme adaptation that is innovative, I was impressed by an initiative to make tampons out of banana fibre. Millions of women and girls across Africa miss school or work and are confined to home because of menstruation. Using a locally available fibre that is easily available is good adaptation, but to be truly innovative you would have to find a way to do it and make profit.
So let us always do the basics well, innovate when necessary but adapt what we have around us, like using mobile phones for banking. When new innovations come online they are expensive, like a video, walkman, CD player, MP3 or ipod.
They are expensive to make and use a lot of energy, the cost of research and development has to be paid off first, so the first video players cost the price of a car. The Japanese lasted 40 years without innovating, just adapting western technology, the Chinese took the same route – make it faster, in higher quantities and cheaper, only to innovate later when necessary.
So innovation is necessary, but not for us, our problem is execution. We have great ideas but lack the financial and technical resources to bring them to fruition. We pray for loans and long grace periods to help us but that will never come.
We have to start small and expand and expand, the burden of debt will not help you innovate and adapt, but you will grow according to your skills and not investment capital.
Rama Isibo is a social commentator