African Innovation

Innovation in Africa looks different. Entrepreneurs tackle big, serious problems: malaria, sanitation, and childbirth, problems we don’t have. So what can we learn from African innovation? Cut the fat, and think lean.

Thinking lean is about intentionally working with less than you think you need. It means not viewing money or resources as the limiting factor. And it often inspires solutions that are not only efficient and cost-cutting, but tackle widespread problems from an original angle.

Take M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer technology in use by 86% of Kenyan households.  M-Pesa had to work under classic lean circumstances when it was launched by SafariCom mobile in partnership with Vodafone in 2007. The company had the challenge of creating a money transfer service for a population lacking bank accounts. It started with what everyone did have – a cell phone – and the widespread need to send money from the cities back home to their families in the villages.

M-Pesa launched with just $1.5 million of seed funding.  The company saw what it needed and what resources were available, and seized upon a basic and practical idea to fill the gap. It opened sales point stores around the country, where you could buy scratch cards to refill your account on your mobile phone and then send money. There was no minimum amount. Transaction fees were negligible. And you could pay for anything, from groceries to electric bills.

M-Pesa quickly became the way to pay for everything in Kenya. Within 5 years the company was transferring funds equal to 31% of Kenya’s 37 billion G.D.P., mostly in transactions of less than 50 cents. Today, there are more than 80,000 M-Pesa agents in Kenya, and the M-Pesa model has been expanded on by startups to connect farmers to buyers (M-Farm) and citizens to reliable health care (MedAfrica). M-Pesa has pushed into many other countries, including India, Afghanistan, and Romania.

Crossing with other cultures and examining how they approach innovation can have tremendous benefits. It lets us step away from always approaching creativity from the same perspective. And it can be mutually beneficial: African innovators frequently use our ideas and adapt them to their lean conditions.

Co-working spaces have sprouted up throughout the Sub-Saharan. These hubs help entrepreneurs overcome the primary impediment to great ideas: erratic electrical supply and weak internet signals.

With just a basic internet connection and reliable power supply, African hubs are coming up with amazing products. Ushahidi—the continent’s most successful software platform—came out of iHub in Nairobi. It’s been used to create crowdsourced maps of situations and events around the world—everything from voter fraud in Egypt to an oil spill crisis map after the BP oil spill.

M-Pesa and Ushahidi are classic examples of lean African innovation: fighting to meet the needs of as many people as they can with limited resources and simple, effective solutions.

How can you help all your customers? Think about their most fundamental daily needs. Cut the fat. Design simple. Think lean.

Photo Credit: Erik Hershman