Are African Innovators the Key to Africa’s Success? Harambean Efosa Ojomo H’17 Says ‘Yes’

In a recent Wall Street Journal review of the book, The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty, Rupert Darwall writes that the authors “return the entrepreneur and innovation to the center stage of economic development and prosperity.” This thinking is in line with the vision of the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance. At Harambe, we believe that African innovators are the key to building Africa’s future. With his recent book The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty, Harambean Efosa Ojomo H’17 echoes this sentiment and provides the relevant case studies and academic rigor to substantiate that point. Published in January 2019 by HarperBusiness and written with co-authors Clayton Christensen and Karen Dillon, the book explores the paradox of eliminating poverty through economic development.

Christensen is a professor at Harvard Business School, the author of twelve books including The Innovator’s Dilemma and the New York Times bestseller How Will You Measure Your Life, and the father of disruptive innovation. Dillon is the former editor of the Harvard Business Review and was named one of the world’s most influential and inspiring women by Ashoka. Ojomo is from Nigeria, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, a senior fellow at Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and a prolific writer. Together, the authors explore the role of innovation in sustainable development.

Efosa Ojomo

The premise is based around two main questions: What is the causal mechanism behind prosperity? And how can we engender it in poor countries? They argue that the reason so many economic development projects fail to solve the poverty endemic is because they are focused on eliminating poverty rather than creating prosperity. Hence, the paradox.

The Failures of Economic Development and International Aid

As Ojomo remarked in the Harambeans Forum at the Vatican in 2017, at least twenty countries that have received billions of dollars’ worth of aid are poorer now than they were before. The top-down approach taken by international development has continually seen poverty as some tangible foe that can be taken down with foreign aid and loans rather than the abstract entity poverty actually is. Supplies will eventually run out and the numerous band aids used to cover the surface problems of global poverty will lose their stickiness to reveal that not much has been done to address what was creating the wounds in the first place.

For instance, building wells for villagers who lack water leaves villagers back to square one once the wells break or run dry. Ojomo learned this lesson first hand through his Nigerian venture Poverty Stops Here. He witnessed the typical experience of poor communities; people were without water, children lacked access to education, and housing was inadequate. One of his projects involved building wells, in order to provide clean drinking water, but he encountered continual challenges whenever the wells broke down. When this happened, people would be back at ground zero with no drinking water, except this time they had become reliant on the wells, so the situation was oftentimes even worse.

To this end, Ojomo and his co-authors argue that the current solutions are not producing consistent results, and in many cases exacerbate the problems — the very opposite of what was intended.

Disruptive Innovation As the Solution

“We have found that disruptive innovation not only lifts people out of poverty, but also catapults them to prosperity, paving the way to a more just and equitable world.”

The solution shifts the focus from alleviating poverty to creating prosperity. Using disruptive innovation, a method that leverages technology and innovative business models, prosperity can grow as new and expanded markets emerge as a result. We call entrepreneurs who use this method “disruptors.” Disruptors don’t aim to create better products that compete with traditional offerings in the market. Instead, disruptors transform complex and expensive products into simpler and more affordable ones. In so doing, they exponentially grow consumer markets and invalidate assumptions of linear projections.

This explains how, in just five years, M-pesa, a mobile money platform, made it possible for 19 million previously-unbanked Kenyans to gain access to financial services. In contrast, it took Kenya’s traditional banking sector 115 years to establish a network of 1,045 bank branches and 1,500 ATMs. While critics argue that the economic climate of many countries is too barren for innovation to take hold, Ojomo highlights example upon example to illustrate that even the poorest countries have an opportunity to thrive in globally connected markets.

One example mentioned in the book examines the innovation and success of Harambean Kwami Williams and his venture MoringaConnect. His collaboration with small farming families stemmed from noticing the failures of a development project that had left farmers with hundreds of moringa trees and no direction on how to use them. The leaves and seeds were valuable and nutritious — a true “superfood”. Williams began research on how to cold-press the seeds of the moringa tree so that the oil could be turned into product. He also set about developing a plan to restructure the supply chain so that farmers in Ghana could receive the economic benefits of harvesting moringa trees. This type of disruptive innovation created a new market through which the farmers could sell their raw product and has enabled over 3000 farmers to build sustainable farming businesses.

Disruptive innovation embraces entrepreneurship by seeing challenges as opportunities for transformation rather than obstacles to success.

African Innovators Key to Africa’s Success

Based on the theory-driven analysis outlined in The Prosperity Paradox, the old model of foreign aid and development being the key to lifting Africa out of poverty no longer holds weight as a viable solution. Instead, African innovators themselves are the key to Africa’s success. The market-creating, behavior-changing endeavors of African entrepreneurs are steadily driving new markets, turning non-consumers into consumers, and transforming struggling ventures into thriving African businesses.

Global investors are taking note. Impact investment firms such as the IDP Foundation, Y Combinator, Cisco, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have invested millions in recent years to ventures led by African entrepreneurs. The Prosperity Paradox mentions the impact of these investments and their impact. For instance, Irene Pritzker of the IDP Foundation decided to use philanthropy as a way to develop sustainable education for children in poor regions. Instead of building more schools, the IDP invested in building the capacity of existing private school proprietors. The programs have since expanded into over 600 schools and have helped provide education to more than 140,000 children. Building upon the goal of creating opportunities through innovation, the IDP Foundation partnered with the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance in order to support African youth in their pursuits to transition from students to entrepreneurs.

Cisco forged a similar partnership with Harambe when the foundation invested in the Harambe Seed Fund, while the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative invested millions of dollars in companies founded by Harambeans. Partnerships like these show that seeing challenges through the lens of investing in Africa and supporting African innovators is a more productive way to create prosperity than to simply “build more schools”.

The growing number of investments in African businesses — which hit a new record in 2018 — indicates that Ojomo’s theory, outlined in The Prosperity Paradox, is indeed the path to prosperity across the continent. African innovators are not simply building companies, but building nations with their ventures as they create new infrastructure, develop emerging markets, and improve existing supply chains. Although it may sound counterintuitive to some, creating sustainable prosperity in Africa will not come from fixing poverty but instead from investing in African entrepreneurs and businesses that create new markets within their countries.

About the Authors

Okendo Lewis-Gayle is author of Harambeans, Founder and Executive Chairman of the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance. Okendo is a graduate of Harvard University and served as Africa Advisor to the Rhodes Trust, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Vatican.

Jasmine Cabanaw is Director of Communications & Marketing at Harambeans. She is an award winning writer, dancer, and Founder of Green Bamboo Publishing.

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