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Innovation Out Of Necessity Is Alive And Well

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Living with first world amenities can cloud an individual’s perspective on innovation. Switch the lens through which you view innovation, and take note of where it is taking place all around the world.


The author of this post, Ken Banks, is the founder of kiwanja.net and Means Of Exchange, and devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Ken is the author of The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator.

We rarely question why we feel we need the latest and greatest.  Tweet This Quote

For many of us, innovation is the iPhone, iPad or pretty much anything that comes from today’s high-tech production line. It’s the latest phone, laptop, smart watch or passenger aircraft, and it’s designed to make things easier, quicker, more convenient and, in some cases, just more fun. We rarely question why we feel we need the latest and greatest, why we change our phones every year, or even what the drivers might be for all these high-tech innovations. Who, for example, decided the world needed an iPad-powered coffee machine?

iPad coffee machine

iPad coffee machine

Much of the innovation we see in the developing world, whether the innovators behind them come from there or not, is done out of necessity. They solve very real problems, many of which happen to be faced on a daily basis by many of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet. Innovation here isn’t about fast, shiny or modern, it’s about solving very real problems. And many of those problems aren’t going away any time soon.

Entrepreneurs in the West may well be losing the will to innovate, although I’d suggest it’s more about ability and a conducive environment than will. Many face difficulties with funding, highly competitive markets and patent wars, all of which make for challenging times. But this is far from the case throughout much of Africa, where I’ve focused most of my efforts for the past 20 years. Many innovations here are born by the side of the road, or in rural villages without any funding at all. Furthermore, market opportunities abound and patents are the last things on people’s minds. Compared to the West, African markets are still something of a Wild West in innovation terms, and this is precisely why there’s so much focus there.

Innovation in the developing world is about solving very real problems.  Tweet This Quote

Innovation out of necessity has given Kenya, for example, a world-leading position in mobile payments. On a continent where hundreds of millions of people lacked bank accounts, mobile phones provided the answer. An estimated 40% of Kenya’s GDP now works its way through Safari.com’s
M-PESA system.

It’s an innovation success story, and it’s provided a platform for many other innovators to offer everything from pay-as-you-go solar lighting to villagers or automated payment platforms for microfinance organizations. The further (anticipated) opening up of systems like M-PESA will spur even more innovation in the future. This is just the beginning. When faced with very real problems that in many cases cost lives, innovators in the developing world kick into a different gear. With little funding or resources, it’s innovation in this ‘long tail’ that is most interesting – a place where people innovate out of necessity, not luxury, and as a matter of survival or ethics, not profit or markets. Health is a classic example of these drivers at work. Six out of the ten chapters in my recent book, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, cover health.

Safari Co

40% of Kenya’s GDP goes through Safaricom’s mobile platform

The issues these innovators address include data collection, genetic disorders, communications between community health workers, patents, access to medicines, and solar energy as a lighting solution for maternity wards. The range of examples shows how broad and complex of an issue health is, as well as the sheer scale of the need for its improvement across much of the developing world.

Many others are better placed to comment on whether entrepreneurs in the West are losing the will to innovate. Whatever the outcome of that debate, thankfully this isn’t the case in the places that matter – the places where far too many people still die from perfectly treatable diseases, or fail to reach their potential because of a lack of access to the most basic of education.

To paraphrase former Liverpool football manager, Bill Shankly, in the developing world innovation isn’t just a matter of life or death. It’s more important than that.

In the developing world, innovation isn’t just a matter of life or death. It’s more important than that.

Ken Banks

About the author

Ken Banks, Founder of kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. He has worked...

Ken Banks has written 13 articles for UNREASONABLE.is

  • emilyursino

    As a business student, I am constantly reminded that business fill consumers wants and needs. Something we rarely talk about, however, it the proportion of new products that fill wants instead of needs. This article highlights the notion that most of America’s exciting new products just give the people what they want, even though many of the privileged believe they “need” it. In developing countries, new products really do arise from the need and its important to understand that in our modern society.

  • Melissa Howlett

    It is also important to think about how innovators in the developed world can help the developing world. What can innovators from the “West” contribute to innovation in the developing world? Innovators in the developed world often have increased access to resources, as well as a different perspective of problems facing the developed world. They may have experience in a different, yet related or applicable field. If the there is a loss of will and/or motivation to innovate in the West, all that entrepreneurs need to do is look to the developing world for a wealth (pun intended) of inspiration.

  • SKrogh

    Innovation for the sake of innovation can also lead to the overconsumption of goods that use valuable resources. Every time a new iPhone comes out, and thousands of people throw their old one away, valuable (and let’s be honest, “blood minerals”) end up in a garbage dump somewhere. Our ‘innovative’ technological products also tend to end up in electric waste villages in several parts of Asia.

    I’m not saying we should avoid innovation (it has obviously gotten us to where we are today). However, if we have innovation for the sake of innovation, with no thought to sustainability or the ecosystem, we will perpetuate a system that harms not only the environment but people as well.

  • Taylor Bolibol

    This article really got me thinking about how we don’t need as much here in the us. We have all the necessities at our finger tips at all times so we are not pushed to always think outside of the box. But what if we did? It makes me think what if I felt “need” would I come up with something great?

  • Juhno Mann

    It really seems to me that the western world isn’t innovating as much as it used to. We get new iPhones and iPads every year, but to me it isn’t true innovation. They make small tweaks and charge hundreds of dollars for the exact same thing that is slightly improved. This is true for many other things as well. It’s really rare that I see any new innovation these days.

  • Tim O’Reilly

    This article gives me hope about the path of the future. No longer is it in the hands of solely developed nation, but the task has been handed over to LDCs and places that can and must innovate to stay along (or slightly ahead of) the curve. While it is stressful, it is important to encourage (and even incentivize) innovation in LDCs. The tools should be given to them to innovate so they can cater to their own audience. While I realize there are many obstacles in the process of creating digital and technological services, I see the imminent need and have high hopes for the future.