At the centre of innovation lies the customer’s inability or hindrance to social, political or economic engagement and development, and the entrepreneur’s answer to the question of the traditional way of doing things. The misconception of innovation is that it is technology exclusive, and is just a brilliant idea that just needs technology as an accelerant and it’s that easy. It’s not.
Let’s begin by defining it, and explore what corporate engagement in innovation could mean for the stakeholders involved, and essentially, why the ecosystem even matters. So what is innovation? A SOCIAL PROCESS that enables NEW IDEAS, PERSPECTIVES to serve customers, win in dynamic markets and develop the growth of an entity or economy.
There is nothing complicated or new about the term or action of innovation, it’s just undergone a facelift multiple times that it’s unrecognisable to the people it once knew. However, the essence of crafting new ideas, perspectives and experiences to serve customers, remains untouched.
A question that’s rather conclusive of corporate innovation engagement (or lack therof) on the African continent that I hear at almost every networking fintech mixer I attend is, “How can corporates participate in or support the innovation revolution and ecosystem on the continent? How can the engagement with startups start and be intentional?”. Okay, it’s two questions, I know, but the connective tissue in these questions speaks to how corporates are getting it wrong when it comes to wanting to be a part of the crowd. It’s like being the curios kid who is clueless about a party going on in their neighbourhood and desperately looking in from the outside and wishing he had an invite just because it seems cool. Furthermore to having no clue about what’s going on at the party and surrendering to the seduction of the buzz around it, will either bully himself into the party or pay their way in. That’s not how it works, or what will get you the results you need. So how is it done? How do corporates hop on and not miss the African Innovation Legacy Train? Let’s have a look at two companies’ models who are getting it right:
- Mastercard Labs for Financial Inclusion is a partnership between Mastercard and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has invested a grant of $11 million into the Labs, with the objective of reaching stakeholders across East Africa to engage financial inclusion and provide the technical support needed to entrepreneurs and stakeholders alike. The Labs were recently in the news for 2KUZE, a mobile marketplace developed at the Labs to digitize East Africa’s agricultural sector. This is one way corporate investment in innovation is working, through Research and Development Hubs.
- SAB (South African Breweries) Kickstart is the flagship enterprise development programme for SAB. Targeted at economic inclusion and promoting industrialisation by driving market access for youth owned businesses. With programmes falling under the ED programme like Ignite and Boost, all targeted at various stakeholders of innovation and businesses. One partnership that engaged a stakeholder most strategies shy away from was with the launch of the Mpumalanga Youth Entrepreneurship Programme (MYEP) with SAB in 2015, looking at fostering sustainable youth entrepreneurship across multiple sectors that include agriculture and manufacturing. This innovation strategy of targeting perhaps Africa’s most valuable commodity, youth demographic, is an integral ROI for corporates, as they’re essentially investing in their future employees and collaborative partners.
The African Innovation Legacy Train is one that’ll require a pull strategy from corporates looking to invest in innovation on the continent; services created within the target audience, which in essence calls for co-innovation and co-creation with not only your customer, but gives you access to work directly with your customer’s customer.
This is how you invest in the continent’s innovation revolution, not by just throwing money at the problem or forcefully penetrating the market because of easy market access or just volatility. Africa's emerging market presents vulnerability to financial risk, restrictive regulations and policies and infrastructure that makes it a breeding ground of opportunity to tap into resources and capabilities of innovation to solve the many local problems, of untapped markets. The opportunities to connect the data points of the startup economic activities, engage with multinationals’ future employees, and knowing your customer’s customers better so that you can innovate with them are just a few of the reasons why corporate innovation matters to the business, and why it should to yours too.
So, hop on the legacy train, now is a great opportunity to. An opportunity to invest in the global legacy that innovation will leave for Africa’s next generation of innovators and inventors.