How do we nurture Africa’s next great innovator?



Globally, the discussion around innovation has been one of great interest especially in the wake of troubling economic times in the recent past. The discussion is strong in relation to Africa’s situation as well. Innovation sometimes can be a bit hard to describe in exact terms but one thing is for sure, you always know genuine innovation or innovativeness when you see it. Yet, it is a critical component to our ability to deal with the challenges of today and the future, as a continent as well as the world as a whole.

If this is true, then societies or nations that manage to bake in a culture of innovation into their social fabric will, in a sense, be more insured against the uncertainties of the future than those that do not.

The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2011 – 2012 made a study of the competitiveness of 142 economies around the world and identified innovation as one of 12 pillars of competitiveness (along with institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, health and primary education, higher education and training, goods market efficiency, labour market efficiency, financial market development, technological readiness, market size, business sophistication) and 3 stages of economic development:

  1. Factor-driven economies: Compete primarily on the basis of natural resources and unskilled labour
  2. Efficiency-driven economies: Where the key is to create efficiencies in the production processes
  3. Innovation-driven economies: Compete on differentiated and sophisticated products and production processes

Most Sub-Saharan African states, according to the research, fall within the first stage where the economy is primarily driven by exploitation of natural resources. In today’s world it is imperative to create a differentiated and sophisticated economy in order to truly be competitive. So for African states to become significant players in the global economy, we have to find ways to move up the ladder to innovation-driven economies.

But how does Africa stack up against the rest of the world innovation wise? INSEAD produces a Global Innovation Index (GII) that aims at giving quantifiable answers to this question. According to the 2011 report that studied the innovativeness of 125 countries, African states don’t stack up very well against much of the rest of the world, reflecting the conclusions of the WEF competitiveness report. According to Brian Laung’s analysis of the GII:

How do African countries fare? Not good. Mauritius and South Africa are the highest ranked African countries at 53 and 59 respectively. Tunisia, Ghana, Namibia, Botswana, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Swaziland, Cameroun, Tanzania, Uganda, Mali, Malawi, Rwanda, Madagascar, Zambia, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Niger, Sudan and Algeria respectively fall somewhere between 64 and 125. It is interesting to note that the United States is ranked 7 and Switzerland 1. Brazil, Russia, India and China are ranked 47, 56, 62 and 29 respectively. Sweden, Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland round out the top 5 in that order.

So how do you peg down innovation and bake it into the very fabric of a society so that innovating is a normal occurrence versus one that takes considerable effort to bring about? Especially for us in the African context?

A nature that needs to be nurtured

Innovation comes naturally to humans. One thing is for sure, human beings have a knack for surviving against all odds and that’s the reason why we’re still here and many specific peoples have not been completely wiped off the face of the earth by some major catastrophe or challenge in their history. Innovation has played a big role in mankind’s ‘stickability’, his survival, on earth so far.

Despite it being a natural capacity, one thing is for sure, innovation needs to be nurtured. The natural-ness comes out quite clearly in the face of an immediate threat, for example, or an urgent need or problem that needs to be solved. As they say, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. People will find, sometimes, the most innovative, inventive and ingenious means to get out of a threatening situation or to solve some urgent problem. If you’ve watched the movie 127 hours you’ll have a clear idea of just how far a human being will go to find a means of surviving the worst of circumstances or solve some dire problem (I don’t know if cutting off one’s arm counts as innovation but you get the point).

So part of our innovative, creative capacity comes from or at least is brought out by our survival instinct.

The question then arises, how do you bring out this amazing human capability without an immediate threat to survival or immediate challenge? It’s a valid question because if we’re touting innovation as the answer to future challenges, we have to find a means to bring out that innovative capacity to bear before those challenges become an immediate matter of concern.

It starts early

If you haven’t watched any of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks you simply must! Sir Robinson, in his uniquely humorous way, explains how we get ‘educated out of creativity’. The premise is that we’re all born with a great natural capacity for creativity and innovation (you just need to watch a toddler long enough to draw the same conclusion) but as we grow up that nature is slowly corroded away especially by our interactions with the education systems we’re put through.

I must say, living in Kenya, and having gone through the standard education system, I agree with Sir Robinson to a great extent. The public education system is designed against the ability to bring out and nurture the student’s capacity for innovation and creativity. In fact, it does a good job at accomplishing the opposite – squashing almost every iota of creative capacity in the student. Why is this so? Perhaps because the system was set up in a time when ‘innovation’ was not a buzzword or a critical consideration of what it will take for an individual and nation to navigate the changes of a globalised world.

Education and a culture of innovation

A culture of innovation has to be supported by the right kind of education for the members of that society. Why? Simply put, you can’t educate one way and then ask the student to act in the opposite way.

If we have an education system that kills the creativity, innovativeness and inventiveness of students why would we expect those same students who in future form the society to turn around into something they were not educated for? The result is an anti-innovation culture. It certainly is not impossible but it sure would be hard to alter years of learned traits. It’s hard to change someone’s way of thinking when all their student life, which normally would account to close to a quarter or more of one’s life, they were taught to cram and regurgitate.

Most students that come out of many of our education systems have static knowledge – what they were taught by the teacher in class and what they were asked for in their examinations. To foster a culture of innovation, we need to produce students who don’t just receive and store information in their brains, but those who create new knowledge based on what they’ve learnt.

Educating for (or into) the future

Education has been identified as a key component to the rise of the African continent, and has been a key feature at many forums. Many a time the discussion revolves around quantity – getting more students enrolled in schools. However, quality wise, an ill-fitting education for current and, more importantly, future demands can be almost as bad as no education at all. But what is a quality education in today’s times?

In my country, Kenya, as with many other countries on and off the African continent, educational reform has been a matter of great debate, with many countries embarking on initiatives to reform the educational systems. Educational reform is a pretty tough nut to crack for basic reasons chief amongst which is dealing with the sheer scale of reach of the system:

  • National public education systems are standardised and applicable to the entire population. Where do you start the reform and how do you ensure it permeates through the entire system?
  • You have thousands or hundreds of thousands of educators who have been using the status quo for years and decades, before you reach the student you have to deal with the educator in the first place. This could be even harder to do because unlike the students, the teachers are older and have been in the system longer, so a paradigm shift is harder to start and scale.

I may not be an expert on education or educational systems but based on simple observation of the world in which we live and that which we will live in in the near future, at least 3 elements that should be considered in organizing a relevant system for education:

  1. Creative experimentation: The system needs to allow for creative experimentation where students are allowed to apply their creative abilities to existing knowledge to create new knowledge in a practical way.
  2. Entrepreneurship focused: In the past, the standard progression for students was to go to school, get a degree and you’d be guaranteed of getting a job. For economic prosperity the discussion boils down to job creation which translates to increased GDP. The problem nowadays is that there simply aren’t enough jobs going around. So the education system has to empower students to be able to create jobs for themselves and others. This ties in with the previous point – creative experimentation teaches students how to create innovative products, and entrepreneurship skills to help students learn how to turn innovative concepts into commercial products.
  3. Future focused: Predicting the future can be a daunting task nowadays a fact that has been proven by recent occurrences and shifts in economies. All the more why students need to learn skills that prepare them for uncertain and highly dynamic futures. Skills such as adaptability and flexibility need to be core and practical.
  4. Globalized and localized: Globalization has turned our world upside down and inside out. Occurrences in distant economies create real problems in local ones; at the same time, distant opportunities are accessible locally. Yet, it’s critically important for students not to lose their heritage, a component of one’s identity.



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