How Innovation Thrives in Africa

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By Andrew Robinson
CEO of The Kit Group
YPO member since 2007

When most people look at satellite pictures of Africa at night they see vast swathes of darkness and massive under-development and deprivation. When I look at those same pictures I just see an abundance of opportunities. Where there is no light, there is always somebody who wants some.

Africa gives entrepreneurs and developers the space to do amazing things and leapfrog the usual obstacles to taking products to market. The darkness that covers much of the continent at night is evidence that we don’t have the same legacy issues that slow the developed world down.

Over the past few decades Africa has been a hotbed of innovation and the world is starting to take notice and realise that it has a lot to learn from us.

Of course we know – and the developed world often forgets – that Africa is not a single country. There are 54 nations, each with their own challenges and opportunities, meaning there is no one size fits all and there is always space for somebody with clever solutions to problems. After all, African entrepreneurs developed and popularised prepaid mobile phones and mobile money. Forbes magazine calls this “a rising new generation of bold, creative-thinking innovators and entrepreneurs who are constantly inventing and developing new technologies that will simplify our daily lives and transform societies- technologies with global appeal and commercial viability in any part of the world.”

This can be seen in the slew of new products being developed from Egypt to South Africa and Kenya to Nigeria.

Over the years I have witnessed astounding talent, resilience, cleverness and good old fashioned pragmatism. When you can grow a business amidst wild currency fluctuations and nonsensical capital restrictions, you can grow a business anywhere.

What a lot of African entrepreneurs show is that it is a mistake to think that innovation only happens in hi-tech industries or developed countries. It is not merely new apps and platforms and cutting edge products that matter but also the simple things – basic machines that warn the blind of obstacles in their path, sail powered power generators, fabrics that are better suited to tough African conditions, and clever ways of coping with logistics and supply in tough environments. If, like me, you have chased opportunities the length of breadth of the continent, you know that wherever you go south of the Sahara, no matter how remote it is, you can buy an ice cold beer. Our innovations that have changed the world, or perhaps, in the case of the cold beer, merely improved it.

The need and desire to innovate is in Kit Group’s DNA and we focus relentlessly on it. Over our 25 years in business we have gone from a single deal-single client business into South Africa’s top manufacturer and supplier of uniform and personal protective equipment (PPE). We now operate in 5 countries and have created employment for over 10,000 people. Our approach to innovation is very practical and targets delivering products that our customers need as cost effectively and efficiently as possible.

The textile sector, like so many others on the continent, is ripe for entrepreneurs and innovators and has great potential to absorb large numbers of people, drive exports, and contribute significantly to taxes.

Business must have significant beneficial social impact and innovation is the only way we can do this.

My advice to people doing business in Africa is simple. Check out the rule book, do your research and spend time getting to know your customers intimately. You need to know what they are going to need in the future rather than just focusing on the now.

Copy, borrow, learn from and emulate the best rather than the past and think about how what you do can be used in different ways.

Thinking you automatically have the answer is the quickest way to guarantee failure. And who wants that?


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