The real impact of innovation is in the lived experience of people

IF NECESSITY is the mother of all invention then Africa, argues the World Economic Forum, has the edge.

Recent innovations making headlines on the continent include small cargo drones known as “flying donkeys”, created by IBM to deliver cargo to remote areas or to take food to refugees at low cost; a much cheaper and more readily available malaria drug; and a software solution that determines patients’ potential responsiveness to ARVs.

Few would argue that these sound like bad things. In fact, most people think that Africa’s future development will depend on disruptive innovation, which will, ironically, occur specifically because the continent faces unique social, political and economic challenges.

“When the slow pace at which Africa is developing is combined with the demographic transformation, contrary to the sentiments of many optimists, the future does not look bright. But it can,” writes Efosa Ojomo, on World Bank blog Africa Can. Omojo’s research with Harvard professor Clayton Christiansen argues that no country has developed sustainably without disruptive innovations.

“It is tempting to discount the possibility of executing disruptive innovations in Africa because of the many obstacles to innovation, including poor infrastructure, the difficulty of doing business, and very low incomes. But when these obstacles are framed as opportunities, innovators can build truly disruptive companies. In fact, it is precisely because these obstacles exist that disruptive innovations can thrive in Africa.”

Ojomo is a self-confessed Afro-pessimist, or at the very least, not an Afro-optimist. It adds some emphasis when the more sober voices are equally convinced of the viability of innovation as a solution to a more sustainable future. But it’s one thing to argue the importance of innovation; it’s another entirely to determine if this innovation is actually good for the continent in the long term.

Critically, we need to be sure that after the first flush of headline-grabbing success, innovation works to improve lives and livelihoods on the continent in a way that is lasting and measurable.

Even at an organisational level, it’s challenging to measure the impact of innovation, although metrics do exist. Beyond the obvious – an increase in revenue – there are other examples, such as impact on the broader innovation ecosystem (partners, customers, suppliers and others); an impact on brand and image (which can be measured through market research) or impact on innovation culture (an increase in innovation projects, for instance).

The simplest way to measure the impact of innovation in African countries is by tracking GDP, but this is not an exact science and furthermore, it does not provide the full picture. To begin with, many African countries receive a large portion of their economic contribution from the informal sector, but few have made a concerted effort to understand the impact of innovation in this area.

It is also difficult to track and measure the quality of life of beneficiaries of, for example, social innovation initiatives. Furthermore, to gather a more comprehensive picture of impact requires extensive quantitative study, such as an evaluation carried out in Canada to assess the impact of several government-funded innovation projects. Even this study was limited, the authors noted.

They cautioned that robust and reliable estimates of returns (financial or otherwise) require a significant amount of time and are extremely costly, and in some areas, viable and agreed-upon indicators for policy-making and demand are simply not yet developed or, where they have been developed, may overlook contextual factors. In short, even in best-case scenario the assessment of impact is massively complex. In poorer countries, the challenge is proportionally bigger.

Of course, measurability is key not only to help guide the ethics of innovation, but to secure investment, be it from the private sector or the state, which is also a key for sustainability. But the reality is that if one wishes to have a degree of certainty about impact, it is costly and resource-intensive.

Alternatively, we need to exercise patience. Many of the most worthwhile innovations will only allow us to reap the rewards in years or decades to come.

In the meantime, we would do well to guard against falling for the hype and taking our eye off the true goal of innovation in Africa – which must be to meet real needs. Bearing in mind that sometimes, a more subtle innovation, like getting teachers to diagnose and treat malaria in remote schools, can be just as effective as an expensive new drug on the market.

*Associate Professor Mills Soko is the director of the UCT Graduate School of Business. Views expressed are his own.

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