Once upon a time, economic activity centred almost entirely on the production and distribution of tangible goods and services. To suit the needs of a changing world and technological advances, new businesses and industries have evolved for as long as there has been some form or organized economic activity.
As social organization itself evolved, the kind of services and goods demanded of the market has shifted. Society itself, it can be argued, has turned on the innovations of the market. Inventions that aided the execution of professional and domestic chores have impacted on the time available for leisure, which concept and enjoyment has itself been affected by advancements in the production and delivery of entertainment products and services.
Naturally, while lives experience these profound changes, the delivery of these changes are themselves a result and function of economic activity. Accesses to jobs, improvements in livelihoods and the stability of political economies have turned on these innovations.
There is another angle to this. Sweat-heavy jobs and industries have almost entirely and some believe, irretrievably shifted to China and Asia generally. In the west, many believe that the future is in innovation and high-tech industries if they are to be able to compete.
The upshot of this dynamic is that technological advances and increased access to them have placed developing countries in a unique position to claim a place at the table. While manufacturing, for example, demanded the provision of heavy and capital intensive machinery and real estate to be able to produce and effectively too, new technologies mean that a global operation can be essentially operated from a two-room office. The tools available now mean that a company can only be limited by its ambition and creativity.
Of course, this depends on access to certain basic infrastructure like electricity and telecommunications. Locally, interruptions in and cost of power and connectivity have pushed up the cost of innovation, argues Maximus Amertogoh, tech entrepreneur. “I have friends who travel to Kenya to develop their online products or projects because it is less expensive to have internet connectivity there. The connectivity is also very reliable. It has a local environment which encourages innovative thinking”.
This is not only convenient to the entrepreneurs but represents a loss to the local economy.
This notwithstanding, Nana Kwabena Owusu, the blogger behind tech233.com, a website that watches and chronicles the technology industry in Ghana is convinced that the industry is on the up.
According to him, collaborations between players in industry via conferences and incubator projects bodes well. “Garage48, Startup Weekend and the like have all brought together some interesting people to put together projects such as Dropifi, which is being funded by the Meltwater Incubator. The Google Technical User Groups (GTUG) across the various universities, Mobile Friday and similar movements and events also allow students to meet up and work together, which is a great way to get potential startup founders meeting instead of each doing their project in a silo”.
Even in the oft-quoted issue of funding and support, Nana Owusu believes there is hope. “MEST is another tremendously exciting thing happening in Ghana’s tech scene. They provide both technical and business training to potential startup founders and their incubator takes on the best among the lot and provides seed funding, office space and again a strong network of local and foreign entrepreneurs. These networks just as the case with VCforAfrica, a community for entrepreneurs, allow potential and existing startup founders knowledge and potential partners.”
For the tech industry, the boom in smartphone usage is a tremendous boon. By their nature, smartphones, with their power and convenience, provide an avenue for the creation of products and services that impact on the lives of users. Mobile based systems in Ghana and elsewhere have lent themselves to payment systems and other ease of life applications.
Nana Kwabena Owusu believes there is great potential. “When people are done with playing Angry Birds and being fascinated by Siri on their Android and iOS devices, they will ask so what else can I do and a new breed of entrepreneurs will answer the question. One of the first areas may be in Customer Relationship Management solutions which may abstract the use of SMS in better and more beautiful interfaces for customer management.”
One firm that has developed a revolutionary product based on the mobile phone is mPedigree, which provides an authentication service for the pharmaceutical industry via SMS. Its much decorated founder, Bright Simons, believes that while the thirst for technological innovation is not so acute among established businesses, a dissatisfaction with the status quo means that “innovators who don’t sound too radical and can “show” rather than “tell” new consumer populations the value of new ways of delivering value can succeed enormously. Looked at the way quick turn-around lending has exploded in this country. If some entrepreneur had gone to a bank and tried to pitch such a product, the grey-suited eminences would have scowled him out of the door.”
There is still less reason to despair. The very structure of technology means that it can be deployed far and near, meaning that markets are plentiful and varied for a determined entrepreneur. mPedigree for example, has enjoyed some success in the Asian markets.
“There are also certain domains such as music and entertainment in general, where the internet has fostered a deep search for authenticity, uncommonness, and inspiration. I don’t see how a blend of gaming and music can’t take over the world with the right below-the-line marketing and web strategy. Azonto on my mind, but clearly that’s just the first baby steps of a potential revolution.”
Ultimately, the market is the arbiter of what works. In Mr Simon’s view, “the best concepts, whether it is James Nakagawa’s ‘Lifewatcher’ or Herman Chinery-Hesse’s ‘Hei Julor’, appear to stem initially from the product inspirer’s own subjective appreciation of such a market need. If an inventor has little urge to use their own product – that is always a sign that said product is less than a gamechanger. After the initial sparks have tossed up all the fancy, mind-blowing, drooling-inducing, royal insignia, however, the more mechanical bits of the “go-to-market” strategy involves rigorous market research and kowtowing, typically because “positioning” a product against all the rivals and even potential substitutes (where there is no clear market rival) is an unbelievably difficult task, even for worldchanging gamechanger products.”
Mr Amertogoh agrees. “Since research is done in a particular market, targeting a segment of consumers, it should inform product development. Since product development involves creating solutions for consumer needs as well as improving the existing solutions to give optimal benefits to the target consumer, R&D is crucial to predicting and tracking the existing and anticipated trends or needs.”
If there is a challenge to innovation in Ghana, it is Ghana’s “by rote” educational system that many consider antithetical to the independence of thought and lack of convention that spurs creativity.
Mr Amertogoh shares this view.
“[Our educational system] does not foster innovation because we are taught to think that there is only one answer to any question. A system that will foster innovation is the one that gives you the opportunity to even question the questions you are asked and also give different answers to the same questions instead of one. It also creates the atmosphere for creative thinking whereby different analysis elements are used to arrive at different conclusions.”
For Mr Simons, it goes further.
“The real challenges are with the highest levels of education. There is zero cross-fertilisation between academia and industry. Some have been misled into thinking that you can achieve such collaboration through forced workshops and “seminars”. Well, you can’t. It is an ecosystem issue. Very few academics in our part of the world have experienced the business world. Very few come from a background of collaborating or nurturing relationships with industry. We have our “attachment” system, which I suppose is expected to pass for an “internship” process. The problem is that it is designed as a chore rather than as a genuine mechanism for discovery on the part of the student. We need to get to a situation where universities, colleges and polytechnics make a concerted and deliberate effort to hire faculty from more “interesting” backgrounds.”
Of course, there are structural and legal issues as well. It is difficult to discern a concerted effort on the part of policy makers to grow this industry while the legal regime remains unfit for purpose.
Mr Amertogoh believes for instance, that innovation centres and a reward system that encourages innovation via tax reliefs, funding and national honours would be a welcome boost.
“People need a little push to unleash their ideas and potential. I have met many young people with creative and innovative ideas to revolutionize our technology sector. They just need a little push”, he says.
Mr Simons also believes that a sustained and co-ordinated effort at supporting the nascent industry is needed. No stranger to the odd honour himself, he suggests that “government could for instance target a number of key global prizes and work consistently with Ghanaians who emerge winners in local competitions to aim for these global prizes. It would be important to help chart a course to global markets for the benefit of local entrepreneurs and innovators in view of the diffuse nature of the market for some products, especially ICTs. Such innovative products require more “breathing room” to scale, so to speak.
“But, by far, the most impactful changes shall come about as a result of increased collaboration amongst innovators and entrepreneurs and a greater willingness to explore synergies in fund-raising, supply chain management, and market education. There just isn’t sufficient knowledge sharing and tight-knit networks across different domains of insight, resources, and power to develop the ecosystems required to nurture game-changing innovation.”
The benefits of fruitful technological innovation are as profound as they are diverse. With the unquestioned reliance of economic and social activities on ICT, local and international businesses all stand to gain from innovation. Should such product or service come from Ghana, the impact will be felt in pockets as greatly as in hearts.