As an engineering graduate, I had two items on my professional bucket-list. The first was that a field or factory engineering gig would never be on that list and secondly, that I needed to develop a passion. Two years in, I can say that I’m one-for-two on that count; the latter is still a work in progress and a segue into the topic matter of this opinion piece. Below are excerpts of my edifying experience in matching market context and innovation in Kenya as an Education Technology (EdTech) Researcher at iHub Research; all under the governing practice of participatory research.
Over the past couple of years Kenya and Nairobi in particular has been placed under keen focus in forums regarding the digital frontier that is Africa. Terms have been coined, backs have been patted and fluff strung under tense examination. A lot can get lost in translation amidst the flurry of emphatic affirmations; imbued ideas and values that cannot be lent to intelligible words, and the learning of which is hardly achieved. As an example, ideas and values such as disruption andtransparency are conceptual constructs that are not easily subscribed to in practice. That could be on account of various factors, such as gross oversimplifications as relates to disruption, or perceived loss of autonomy when considering transparency. Of course these are not the only factors that can nor should be considered, but they serve well enough to initiate the point. Taking this full circle to the theme in question, a “square hole, round peg” problem arises where in the case of the budding entrepreneur, the external motivator to rapidly innovate can easily ring into dissonance with the internal motivator to applicably understand how to innovate, arguably resulting in the lacklustre performance decried by investors as fluff. In short, the current entrepreneurial atmosphere is brimmed with budding innovators who largely have not really considered what it actually means to innovatively disrupt.
There are countless founder-led innovations whose pitch decks are immoderately crammed with worded ideas like “impact” or “revolutionary”, but the requisite understanding of which can more often than not be found to be lacking. A preponderance of this developed conflict in the entrepreneurship circles of Nairobi should be cause for taking of stock as it were; especially by “side-hustle entrepreneurs” who’ve found themselves hard struck by inordinate critique. What does it mean when a self-proclaimed innovator preaches impact but drinks swigs of fatalist and middling returns? If nothing else, it leads to poor investor confidence; and investors, quite frankly, are just as much a customer as your users are. Aligning internal motivators to drive external motivators and not vice versa is paramount for an innovator; an uninspired innovator is no innovator at all.
"Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground."
― Theodore Roosevelt
“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
- Steve Jobs
In many ways, the quote above goes a long way in describing the “new and revamped” free market the world is currently enthralled in. It oddly flies in the face of all the freedoms assumed to be inherent to every free market native. It’s only when we realise the ethos of this quote is driven by a different mechanism altogether; by a market of wants. The point I’d like to put forth here, is that the vast majority of markets around the world, such as the “emerging, disruptive markets of the Global South” are typically driven by need; we need value-driven governance structures, efficient infrastructural & financial networks, improved value-addition at an industrial level and, perhaps, national identities. We could engage in a spirited discussion about this point, but distinguish these from a market of wants which is typical of western economies where quite literally, anything goes; where fantasy sports and hit-and-quit dating apps together are expected to rake in close to 407 billion shillings (4 billion dollars) in revenue this year according to IBISWorld data. For context, that’s close to 150% more than what Kenya’s financial budget for 2015 allocated to all our county governments; counties that have to build and maintain roads, hospitals and schools. But this isn’t to detract from the commercial nature of the free market, but rather to point out that a market of wants is a completely different economic system from a market of needs. Sure enough, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that western economies largely grew into markets of wants, especially if you consider that it politically doesn’t say much of an administration when they tout the satiation of economic requirements typical of a market of needs; “well maintained bridges and dams” isn’t a sexy campaign slogan.
To set context, we all know of the pivotal role barter trade played in Africa, but underpinning it was the idea that trade within a network occurred mostly when a need had to be met. So what happens when needs become indistinguishable from wants and for all intents and purposes become amorphous wants? The recognised world we live in is a highly integrated mesh of networks upon networks that are efficiently developed to suit various exchanges of value. This efficiency has led to an economic landscape that places basic human needs like shelter and clothing on the same level playing field as branded sugar drinks and snapback hats. That’s largely because choice has taken free-market precedence in an effort to fulfil unquenchable wants, but to the detriment of markets that can’t efficiently supply for said wants because demand is too small i.e. they have needs that must be taken care of first. This is a very stark difference from the barter trade of old, andMaslow’s Hierarchy of Needshelps to lend some clarity in seeing why this is the case. The truth of the matter though is that while the free-market is the most dominant economic system in place, it’s not the most resilient, especially for frontier markets like what we have in Africa. Here, market forces are arguably vectored to attend to needs of sustenance, and while I recognise that the term itself may be a misnomer, I only do so to create the distinction.
What this theme should bring to the fore is the idea that as local innovators get lost in the allure of building for “needs of surplus”, they shouldn’t forget that our market here in Kenya is largely characterised by “needs of sustenance”. Matching this with technological advancements can definitely be done, but requires a more deft and humanistic approach to innovation. Build
These are only two points that helped lay bare a subject matter whose narrative I didn’t feel was well told, especially to local budding entrepreneurs. Inspired in part by the book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clay Christensen in which he lays out an innovation scheme dubbed “the failure framework”, as well as the the many conversations around it.
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