History has shown us that necessity is the mother of invention, the age of invention is over, and this is the age of invention’s younger brother – innovation.
A great inventor like Thomas Edison locked himself in a room for years and invented a light bulb, but today it requires a collective effort to bring ideas together and adapt them – that is innovation.
It is the realisation that there will never be a final answer to our problems, instead it will be a series of smaller solutions and adaptation.
Adaptation is the first step to innovation, but one must differentiate between imitation and adaptation.
Colonialism was damaging because it required imitation not adaptation, in the end we became a hybrid culture mixing European and African culture.
Adaptation is more effective because it is voluntary, Japanese began by first imitating western products, then adapting them, and finally innovated their own products that surpassed western goods.
Artisanal skills are the backbone of innovation; they bring ideas from paper to reality. If one was to start a business today, one would rely on the skills of artisans. These self-employed small companies are the best hope for innovation in Rwanda.
Studies show that only 15 percent of people are born business-people, another 20% can learn the skills of business, but 100 percent of people can succeed if they do what they are passionate about.
That is the first key, to find what people love to do and enabling them to do it.
The role of government in innovation is one of fostering what is already happening organically. The government here has taken a lead by adopting technology in its service provision and most of its services are online.
However, like in most of the third world, the challenge is to bring technology to people without electricity or means of access.
Our education system should allow children to use their imagination and think creatively.
The government should reward innovation with tax relief, grants and even loan guarantees particularly where it will benefit the country.
Capital is essential for any startups. Banks play a crucial as gatekeepers to foster innovation.
In Africa innovators are starved of capital, when it is available it is at high rates that make it impossible to take risks thus reducing rewards.
Banks need to invest in sectors for strategic reasons. Even though the sectors might not be profitable now, we need to grow and diversify.
The dot-com boom was fuelled by banks over lending to internet companies, too much capital for innovation is bad as well. There must be competition for capital because it produces better ideas.
Back to mother necessity, Rwandans need to think laterally, the global financial slowdown has been felt here and it is driving Rwandans to innovate.
When our economy started to pick up after 1994, the first wave of businesses was the essential basic service and retail business options.
Now it requires more thinking as the business world here is saturated with imitators.
With disposable incomes rising slowly but cost of living rising faster, the best businesses to open are ones which deliver more value for the same income.
That can only be done by larger volumes from economies of scale and that is what I discussed last week.
Synthesis is the missing factor. Innovators in Rwanda are not connected and need a network. There are so many good ideas I hear everyday, none of them really get anywhere because they lack fertile ground and adopters.
Rwandans are instinctively conservative.
Over time, we have come to fear change and we often prefer to accept our stations in life and things as they are.
This week I tried to buy curtains, there is no place with ready-made drapes in a city of one million human beings.
No Rwandan has ever decided to stitch curtains in plain colours and standard sizes that can be bought off the rack.
Instead, you go to the cloth shop and then take them to a tailor and it takes two days. This is the business coma we are in. And innovation is the only way out.