We are continuing our week-long discussion on international travel and development with 2nd year MBA student Steve Lehmann. Prior to business school Steve worked as an engineer in the steel industry, helped launch a social enterprise in Chicago, and spent two years working on international development projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Haiti. He is currently developing a business, the bops brigade, that uses stuffed animal ‘twins’ to provide comfort for children in refugee camps while connecting them with children in the US. His concept was recently featured at the Stanford E-Bootcamp.
Innovating from West to East
We’ve all heard the stories. Italian agronomists plant advanced tomato farms in Uganda; hippos eat the harvest. American engineers install windmills in Kenya; returning a year later, they find them unused and largely disassembled. Canadian hydrologists install a new water delivery system in Mozambique, learning only afterward that the same system had been tried – and had failed – 5 years prior. (The local response: “You didn’t ask.”) For those in the international development community, these types of stories have become almost cliche:
- Foreigner visits poor country
- Foreigner perceives tragic ‘problem’
- Foreigner returns home to create innovative solution with foreign colleagues
- Foreigner implements ‘solution’ in poor country with foreign tools
- ‘Solution’ breaks and is re-purposed into something actually useful by local people
Local Problem, Local Solution
The last decade has seen a gradual rejection of this ‘West to East’ approach to innovation in development. The concept of community- based development, pioneered by missionaries in Africa, has made its way into the mainstream thinking of international NGOs. Organizations have followed the lead of Engineers Without Borders Canada and have begun publishing annual reports devoted entirely to their project failures. International NGOs continue the trend of filling their field offices, which were once staffed primarily with expats, with local or regional talent. The oft-repeated assertion “local problems need local solutions” is winning the day.
Recent efforts in Africa, the continent with which I’m most familiar, are succeeding in shifting the prevailing view of the poor from those who need foreign help and intervention to those who often source brilliant ideas and innovations. If you’re seeking inspiration, I would encourage you to take a look at some of these organizations:
- The Awethu project is building a business incubator on the premise that “entrepreneurs in under-resourced South African communities can compete with graduates of Harvard Business School…we just need to make sure they have equivalent training and resources.”
- Kickstart, a technology development firm in Kenya, has created a highly profitable business by designing tools to help small-hold farmers improve their operations.
- UNICEF Innovation is growing its network of Innovation Labs (currently in Kosovo, Denmark, Uganda, and Zimbabwe) to cultivate local innovators, especially children, and tackle challenges related to child health, safety, and education.
- The Tony Elumelu Foundation, founded by the billionaire founder of Heirs Holdings, is building on Elumelu’s vision of a new “Africapitalism” by investing millions of dollars in entrepreneurs, technology startups, and incubators around the continent.
Innovating from East to West
The success of innovations sourced in Africa, India, and East Asia has inspired thinkers, and even a few companies, to envision a future where old conceptions of West to East innovation are actually reversed. There already exist some compelling examples of this ‘reverse’ or ‘trickle up’ innovation: emerging technologies like mobile money and drone logistics, created initially to solve the unique problems of developing world customers, are only being exported to advanced economies after years of success in Africa. The global hand-me-down economy, where technologies gain ascendency in poorer countries only after becoming defunct in richer ones, is fast leaving us behind. In this type of world, the most successful companies will be those who first recognize the importance of developing-world approaches to innovation, and who learn how to incorporate them into their existing product development and innovation efforts.