Frugal Innovation and Lessons from Africa

Frugal Innovation and Lessons from Africa

Australia’s newest Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has staked a claim as “the innovation PM” he holds a vision rejuvenate Australia and its economy through innovation. This handy primer from the Sydney Morning Herald will help you with what you need to know about the #ideasboom.

Innovation is a deliberately open term with many meanings, the increasingly common of which is to be entrepreneurial or start-ups. No doubt in Turnbull’s mind, and others, when they conjure images of innovation and entrepreneurialism their mind floats to Silicon Valley or wherever is currently being heralded as the new Silicon Valley. But are all of the world’s lessons on start-ups and innovation really to be found in California alone?

We don’t think so. In fact we think lessons can be, and should be derived from those places coming up with solutions to everyday problems and doing so on a budget (not that we don’t wish we had shares in facebook or other tech-finn giants).

A quick flick through the Economist’s “Pocket World in Figures 2015” will dispel themyth that SIlicon Valley is the world’s entrepreunerial hub. The top ten countries with the most entrepreneurial activities are:

Percentage of population aged between 18-64 who are either a nascent entrepreneur or owner of their own business:

  1. Nigeria equal with Zambia
  2. Bolivia
  3. Ecuador
  4. Malawi
  5. Ghana
  6. Indonesia
  7. Uganda
  8. Chile
  9. Yemen

Of course there are flaws in reading that list without analysis. For example it would be wrong to not explore reasons why certain economies force populations to generate their own employment, ergo that there are push and pull factors in innovation.

However, this post is a slightly more optimistic consideration of what makes Africa so entrepreneurial, and what lessons can be transferred to Australia’s economy. After all five of the top ten countries on the list are on the African continent. We also don’t want to miss an opportunity for photos of elephants, innovative elephants if you will.

By Matt MacGillivray


Many of the African countries which make the list are also leaders in Fin-Tech start-ups and entrepreneurialism. When it comes to tech solutions Nigeria is a world leader, and Africa leads the planet with technology adoption, and not just in communications but also in civic provisions and sales. Further innovation and entrepreneurship are areas we should all be open to learning from each other from and about – let’s assume when they called it the share economy they meant it in a nice way.

On every corner of every street in an African city can be found someone who is being innovative, either they are pushing themselves to make a business or they have found unique solutions to common problems. Examples of this include:

  • Bicycles that recharge phones
  • Online retail platforms customised the African market (Konga)
  • Cross platform Interactive media products curating African stories influenced by African folklore to a worldwide audience, through comics and games (Leti Arts)
  • Gaming platforms (Gamsole)
  • Security technologies offering GPS tracking, CCTV and ability to turn off engines (Sunrise tracking)
  • Affordable Solar powered solutions for communities that have no electricity (MKOPA)
  • E-learning platforms (ENEZA, Prepclass) • Trading platforms to allow producers and wholesalers of goods and raw commodities in emerging markets to connect with Buyers (Exportunity)
  • Affordable Solar powered solutions for communities that have no electricity (MKOPA)
  • E-learning platforms (ENEZA, Prepclass)
  • Trading platforms to allow producers and wholesalers of goods and raw commodities in emerging markets to connect with Buyers (Exportunity)

Just reading the list should excite you for the potential lessons Australia can adopt for fostering an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset from Africa. But if the lessons had to be divined into a list? Well here is a list of lessons for you also:

Ten lessons we can learn from African innovation:

  1. Hustle – the term perhaps has connotations we aren’t endorsing, but at its heart is the idea of doing anything to make your idea work. Many people have what they term a side-hustle, or “a day job” they use to keep their other ideas afloat. Another way of phrasing this is to diversify your initial income earning activity.
  2. The biggest risks are often taken by those with everything to lose, and being risk adverse is a luxury.
  3. Start small and build on up , this idea is related to the idea of hustle. Also could be worded as keep it simple.
  4. Be open minded – don’t think an idea of a market is too small or too “uncool” for you.
  5. Spot opportunity and seize it – don’t ever get caught in the “I could have” trap.
  6. Work together – sounds like a cliché, but Africans work with friends and family, and so should you, it will help you keep energy in your ideas and make it fun. You should not shy away from using personal networks for support and customer feedback.
  7. Do more with less resources
  8. Adapt to your locale, spaces and customer needs
  9. Find microenterprise niches
  10. Adapt innovations to address the day-to-day challenges – if you face a problem in your day to day, chances are other people do to, and that they would love a solution.
  11. Be daring and adventurous with your approaches without fear of failing
  12. Only look for capital if you really need it.

An area which Africa is gaining it’s deserved attention is in what is being termed “frugal innovation” great ideas on a budget. In Ghana, for instance drivers use platforms based on Twitter and other social media to monitor traffic. Frugal innovation is also innovation which aims to solve problems and do so with whatever is available, rather then spending energy on pitching and gaining hedge-fund attention.

We think the ideas behind frugal innovation require further attention because they are so damn exciting. And to help spike that excitement in you of the potential lessons to be learnt watch this Ted Talk on the topic from Innovation Strategist Navi Radjou.

Image Credit: FeatureHeader


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