Here are hopefully some provocative thoughts on why African startups don’t have to innovate:
1. It’s a man’s world
If the truth be told, there is an alpha-male pretentiousness around the whole startup discussion and community that is doing a disservice to the concept and its young players. We need to lose that to enable a more thoughtful and sustainable process be built other than the “five minutes in the sun”, reality TV approach that feeds both media and egos, while putting the kids back on the street wondering if the path of a diesel baron or white hacker isn’t the better option going forward. Of course, the place where process is focused on is neither sexy nor a quickie – no testosterone or adrenalin rush.
2. We all want the American Dream
At its heart, start-ups are about new businesses, not new-new; meaning any business that is in its early stage of incubation is a startup and deserving of attention. So for this specific dynamic to be a self-perpetuating part of our economy, it needs to be built as a self-perpetuating mechanism similar to the “American Dream”. The entire American social construct is built on this mythology and as a result, startups are actively pursued as means of escaping the ordinary, mundane and low economic status of a worker. Its aspirational but with ladders that show the way up. Look hard and it will become clearer that the entire educational system holds the key and yet we are not working in that space. In the words of Tony Wagner, “increasingly in the twenty-first century, what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know. The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today.”
3. Shall we disrupt already?
Innovation is only that when it disrupts something that is already in existence and/or creates a new-new product or solution. We are in the fast-lane for the Hackathon capital of Africa but its questionable how much innovation is in all that. Most of the events/competitions simply recycle the code warriors, often combining and re-combining into development groups that have a single purpose – to win the prize money. Another symptom is the weakness of the thinking behind the solutions often proffered at these events – little to no research on existing solutions/products, no clarity of the viability of the basic premise, no data to support the conclusions leading to the app being presented, etc. Few have a serious roadmap, fewer have business plans or even concepts around sustainability. And we continue to cheer them on.
4. Hacked and patent-pending
The innovation economy is inextricably tied into intellectual assets and the property that evolves from leveraging the assets. I have yet to understand how telling everyone about your idea for a product through a social media post or Hackathon can be the most efficient way to exploit an idea, blue ocean or innovation. There is nothing in my research that points to this as a means by way innovation clusters such as Silicon valley have emerged or been sustained – maybe there is a Nigerian way? Worse still, we have the weakest IP laws possibly on the planet, and almost no support for serious innovators who in desperation for attention and capital, literally enslave themselves to mostly local VCs in exploitative agreements, or sell themselves on the cheap to global OEM predators. Surely, we have a greater responsibility to the young and upcoming?
5. Ecosystem in its infancy
Unlike the nations which we desire to emulate, the pillars of the ecosystem that supports startups, entrepreneurship and possibly innovation is yet to be put in place in Nigeria. For instance, I’m curious if we believe it is possible to seriously drive innovation in technology without taking another look at the language of instruction and business? Our language is a barrier or lever for HOW we conceptualize our challenges, WHAT we perceive can be done about them, and WHO we mobilise into the context to deliver results.
IMHO, if we must be true to our young people, those who have not reflected on Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner AND the Innovator’s Dilemma by Clay Christensen, should probably not be in the space at all. As I said, my humble opinion.
[Image Credit: Creativity Post]