Going into the Covid-19 pandemic, almost all organizations were facing myriad challenges in terms of fiercer competition, more discriminating customers, longer sales cycles, and difficulty in differentiating their offerings, mostly due to tremendous advances in technology and a demand for greater transparency.
The pandemic has accelerated what forces were already in play, in addition to changing the way we all live and work, and devastating certain industries and business models. Now more than ever, every organization should be aggressively looking to innovate…or go extinct.
Every organization is different, with its own set of unique markets, customers and business drivers. As we work with our portfolio companies in helping them innovate, we start with the following 5 questions:
How congruent is the way you innovate with your vision and appetite for innovation?
How effectively do you articulate your vision and appetite for innovation to your stakeholders?
Is innovation a crucial part of your team members’ job descriptions?
Do you have the right processes to create and bring innovation to market?
How do you measure ROI and your ability to meet customer expectations?
Tying vision to appetite for innovation – This is core to a company’s ability to succeed as it iterates and pivots. Is the innovation imperative part of your company’s DNA? Those who embrace creativity and boundaryless thinking are essentially building innovation into the way they operate.
Articulating your vision for innovation – It’s not enough to just think in a vacuum. It’s necessary to evangelize the need for different thinking and changing for the better. The most innovative organizations talk about their innovation goals and progress, and they actively share this with their teams, shareholders, customers, suppliers, etc. “Walking the talk” brings it all together for stakeholders and they can all participate to help companies innovate.
Team members as “innovators” – We have heard the mantra that “everyone is in sales.” Embracing this mentality has benefitted many companies and their employees. The companies who are most effective at innovating think that “everyone is an innovator,” and they actively engage all team members in formal and informal exercises and conversations for ideas on organizational self-improvement.
Processes for Innovation – This takes leadership from the top, and an assignment of resources to execute on the innovation imperative. The most innovative organizations create and implement innovation processes, measure results, and iterate off that feedback. This set of processes is a playbook for how companies can continue coming up with the best and most creative ideas.
Measuring ROI – The best kind of innovations have a direct and measurable ROI. Some will not be measurable, but will have benefits (examples could be improved employee morale, increased retention, customer lifetime, value, etc.) and should therefore be undertaken. The discipline of calculating ROI by itself is extremely useful, as it forces a closer examination of the various drivers of a business.
In summary, what we are looking for are the vision/desire for innovation, how it’s communicated, engagement of team in this effort, execution structure, and tangible ROI. The answers to these five questions will form a good foundation from which any organization can start looking at things differently and innovating its way to greater success.
It is not a coincidence that the most developed nations are also the ones with the highest levels of entrepreneurial activity and innovation. While starting from a minimal level of development helps support the latter two, for example through basic access to capital and institutional stability, the impact of innovation and entrepreneurship on the economy and society more broadly cannot be overstated. In fact, it goes beyond usual suspects such as increased productivity, competitiveness, and job creation, spilling over to areas as diverse as regulation, infrastructure, the environment, and social inclusion. Below I provide a (certainly non-exhaustive) list of six such effects. While every issue deserves an article (or even a book!) of its own, I provide but a brief overview on each point, leaving the interested reader to dig deeper on his or her own.
Innovation can drive regulatory improvements
Although ideally the right conditions, including regulations, would be in place to enable the occurrence of innovations, the reality is that the order is often inverted. Regulatory changes can be drawn by the innovations themselves, from the bottom up. For example, in Kenya, Safaricom launched a series of increasingly innovative financial services through its M-Pesa platform, such as e-money transfer, virtual savings accounts, and virtual credit. The government watched while the company experimented and innovated and, once the demand for its services were demonstrated, the government enacted and amended laws to adequate the functioning of the financial system to M-Pesa’s offerings. This set a new regulatory stage in Kenya that benefited other fintech startups and helped democratize access to finance. When regulation follows innovation, it tends to work better than ex-ante efforts, which are often based on non-transferable international practices and struggle to support innovations that are not yet fully understood.
Innovation can support infrastructure progress
Innovation can also promote infrastructure development. In the early 2000s, in Africa, the growth of telecom pioneer Celtel was hindered by insufficient cellphone coverage in countries like Congo, Gabon and Zambia. But the company did not just wait for government investments. It took matters into its own hands and invested in cell towers itself, as well as other complementary infrastructure such as roads, to be able to service the towers effectively, and water supply, so workers and their communities could have basic water access in remote areas. This investment has paid off for Celtel, enabling the exponential growth of the business, and the countries where it operates, which benefitted from improved infrastructure. Similarly, in Nigeria, Tolaram launched its popular brand of instant noodles Indomie, the first of its kind in the country, which quickly became a hit and a must-have dish across the country. The growth of the business, however, was being hindered by the precarious infrastructure and logistic capabilities in Nigeria. Tolaram invested more than $350 million in developing its own logistics company, with over 2,000 trucks, and building infrastructure including electricity and sewage and water treatment facilities. Furthermore, the company took a leading role in developing a $1.5 billion public-private partnership to build and operate a deep-water port in Lagos, all to support the long-term growth of its business. Both cases are discussed in details in the book The Prosperity Paradox.
Innovation and entrepreneurship can promote environmental sustainability
There is plenty of evidence that this generation of entrepreneurs and innovators, especially younger ones, tend to be more environmentally conscious than businesspeople from previous generations and government bureaucrats. In fact, many startups are set up specifically to mitigate environmental challenges. Colombia’s Conceptos Plasticos, for example, contributes to the circular economy by using recycled plastic materials to form Lego-style bricks which are then used to build affordable housing. Global startup Airborn Water, in turn, designed a technology that efficiently produces fresh (potable) water from the air’s humidity, contributing to sustainable water supply in even the remotest areas. Moreover, even when the business itself is not focused on solving an environmental issue, (younger) entrepreneurs are generally more mindful of mitigating potential negative externalities, following sustainable practices, and adopting a triple-bottom-line approach to business.
Innovation and entrepreneurship can mitigate social problems
Entrepreneurs are problem-solvers who understand that a problem can become the opportunity for a profitable business. They often build companies around solving pain-points they have identified in their own lives and communities. Many startups have business models that rely on resolving social problems or targeting the base of the pyramid as consumers, workers, and suppliers. In fact, three of the examples provided above – Celtel, M-Pesa and Indomie – illustrate businesses that have great social impact. Also, there is a subset of social entrepreneurs that run non-for-profit enterprises which are committed, first and foremost, to addressing community challenges. Hospital Beyond Boundaries provides health services to poor, underserved communities in Malaysia and Cambodia. Zomato Feeding India combats food waste in India and provides meals to the poor. It has a network of about 25,000 volunteers across more than 100 cities and has served over 33 million meals to people in need. She Says is an organization that fights for gender rights in India, especially those of women and girls that have been victims of sexual assault and harassment.
Entrepreneurship can promote inclusion and change cultural norms
Many countries face challenges when it comes to the inclusion of minorities and women in the economy. In certain regions of the Middle East and Africa, for example, business is still not seen as an appropriate activity for women. They are expected to take on domestic roles or perhaps become teachers, nurses, or work in traditional agriculture and manufacturing. In Africa, only 9 percent of startups have women leaders, according to Venture Capital for Africa. In such context, the development of programs that promote women’s entrepreneurship, for example through business education, incubation and acceleration, helps debunk taboos and shake the status quo. Initiatives such as New Work Lab, in Morocco, and the Kosmos Innovation Center (KIC) in Ghana, Senegal, and Mauritania, are making targeted efforts to support women entrepreneurs. Similar initiatives abound throughout Africa and the Middle East and are paying off. The landscape for women in the workplace is changing for the better, as female entrepreneurs become role models and serve as inspiration to others, regardless of sector and occupation. And the economy benefits too. According to the Women’s Entrepreneurship Report, women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa are 60 percent more likely than male entrepreneurs to offer innovative solutions and 30 percent have businesses with international reach, which also exceeds their male counterparts.
Entrepreneurship can strengthen ties with diaspora and help address brain-drain
Many developing economies suffer from brain-drain, with an important share of the well-educated and resourced leaving the country to search for better opportunities in developed countries. The growth of a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem creates the opportunity for people to choose to develop their talent and invest their resources locally, instead of voting with their feet. It also motivates the diaspora to re-engage with the local economy by becoming (angel) investors, mentors, connectors – and eventually even returning to their countries. For example, ChileGlobal, part of Fundación Chile, promotes and facilitates the development of business projects and the introduction of innovative technologies through its network of influential Chileans living in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Pangea, in turn, connects African entrepreneurs and successful diaspora members by providing both training and business intelligence for diaspora investors and engaging the diaspora in the startups Pangea has invested in.
Do you have additional points to raise? Examples to share? Agree or disagree with a particular issue? Leave your comments below and let’s keep this discussion alive!
Andre Averbug is an entrepreneur, economist, and writer. He has over two decades of international experience working in the intersection of economic development, entrepreneurship, and innovation. He has worked and lived in multiple countries across North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Central Asia.
Andre has started and run four startups, in Brazil and the US, and was awarded Global Innovator of the Year in 2009 by World Bank’s infoDev. He has extensive experience supporting companies as mentor and consultant, both independently and as part of incubators such as 1776 and the Kosmos Innovation Center, and programs like Shell LIVEWire, StartUp Weekend and WeXchange.
As an economist, Andre has worked in topics ranging from innovation ecosystems, entrepreneurship and MSME development policy, competitiveness, business climate, infrastructure finance, monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and country assistance strategy for the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES). He has also consulted for clients such as DAI Global, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), TechnoServe, among many others. He holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of London (UK) and an MBA from McGill University (Canada). Andre lives in the Washington, DC area.