Innovations must satisfy a need or market

Sunday April 9 2017

Daniel Njuguna

Daniel Njuguna operates his automatic clothesline, which draws clothes indoors if it starts raining. PHOTO | DELFHIN MUGO 

By DELFHIN MUGO
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If Daniel Njuguna were to convert every one of his innovative ideas into businesses, he would certainly be a rich man.

The 25-year-old’s inventions include a home security system, a radio station that broadcasts within a 200-metre radius, an automatic clothesline, a manual handwashing machine, and more recently, an animal feed maker, a chicken plucker and a drone.

In addition, he can operate the electric switches at home using his mobile phone.

However, it is only from the animal feed maker that he is earning money.

DEMAND FACTOR

But Njuguna is just one of the many young people with innovative creations that don’t go beyond the prototype.

This raises the question, why are such innovators not making money from their creations?

Dr Jacqueline Kisato, a lecturer at Kenyatta University who also mentors innovators at the Chandaria Business Innovation and Incubation Centre (CBIIC) based at the university, says it all depends on an innovator’s approach.

“If an innovator works in private without meeting market needs, chances are that his idea won’t go very far.

"True innovation and entrepreneurship should provide solutions that meet consumer wants or needs. It is also prudent to work with a team with competencies in innovation and entrepreneurship,” she says.

Innovation Week

Kenya High students been taken through products offered by International Tropical Institute during the Nairobi Innovation Week on March 11, 2017. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

MONETISING INNOVATIONS
To stress the importance of this, she cites the strategies used by internationally known innovators:

“Steve Jobs had a partner, Bill Gates had a partner, and Mark Zuckerberg has partners. Why do you want to do it alone?” she asks, adding, “Nobody can steal your idea; they can only modify it, replicate it, but not steal it.”

Dr Kisato, who has worked with innovators around the country and beyond, considers innovation a bit overrated and “heightened to seem like an area for the chosen few, who for some reason see no need to tap into the market they want to serve”.

She notes that some innovators come up with solutions they think are good for the market but don’t transform them into businesses, so the initial capital ends up being a waste of money.

“Such research and development should be happening in universities, where trial-and-error research and paper writing are done. But if you want to make it into a business, you must consider how you are going to monetise your idea,” she says.

Dr Kisato points out that innovation and entrepreneurship are different, adding that even though one can learn and even master entrepreneurship, very few people excel in both; most people are either innovators or entrepreneurs.

MENTORS AND SPONSORS
She says the easiest way is to actualise one’s innovation is to create a team.

“Remember, anyone who wants to give you funds won’t do it if you are working alone because they want an assurance that the project has a competent team dedicated to its success,” she says.

For a start, Dr Kisato says, an innovator needs a mentor, someone to listen to them and challenge their thinking. They need a sponsor to open financial doors and help them create valuable networks.

They also need a team of peers with different expertise and lastly, they need the industry and consumers, because ideally, the solutions devised by innovators should meet industrial and consumer needs.

She says working alone often leads to the creation of “innovations with little market use”.

To illustrate this point, she cites an experience she once had:

“I approached a friend who works with a petroleum company and asked her the challenges they were having.

"She told me of a challenge with their IT system, so I got two of my best IT innovators and challenged them to create a solution for the company. Surprisingly, the company was willing to accommodate and allow them to solve the problem.

"They got paid for it. As we were leaving, the company asked us one question: ‘How come we never see you coming to do this with us?’”

FIND A BUYER
The experience revealed the disconnect between local innovation hubs and the market, prompting her to adopt a new approach:

“Nowadays I walk into a company and ask them the challenges they are facing and how I can help them, how we can create a customised solution for them so that they don’t go and buy a ready-made system that might need modification to suit their needs.”

Dr Kisato, who has worked all over East Africa, says Kenya is one step ahead in innovation, but compared with developed countries like the US, the country has a lot to learn, especially regarding the participation of industry.

“I attended a function in the US during which IBM was holding a hackathon for university students in New York using its artificial intelligence platform, Watson, with the assurance that it would help the best innovators to set up businesses. That kind of participation needs to be enhanced by all industries in the country,” she says.

So, what about Njuguna and his many innovations?

“I see many possibilities of him creating business out of his innovations, but he is working alone. He needs an entrepreneur.

"Take for example his washing machine and compare it with electric washing machines. His manual machine could be cheaper, so the question he should ask himself is, who needs a manual washing machine?

"Think of all the hair salons that have to wash their towels all the time. They would be interested in that.

"That’s where the entrepreneur comes in. The entrepreneur’s work is to find out who needs what solution and then create demand for it. So it is about creating business models that will work for his different innovations,” she says.

Daniel Njuguna

Daniel Njuguna operates his homemade drone. PHOTO | DELFHIN MUGO

And regarding Mr Njuguna’s latest creation, a homemade drone, Dr Kisato says, “My question is, what value does his drone offer that can’t be found in those already in the market?

Two, does the market here need drones and if so, who needs them?

Has he talked to the Kenya Wildlife Service, for instance, who would find it cheaper for monitoring our forests as opposed to using a helicopter?

So he really needs someone in the business world to help him link business with his innovation.

And if he takes someone in the business world, he should be willing to part with some shares in the company.”

SILICON VALLEY
So, with the variety of hubs in the country, it’s up to the innovator to become a little more proactive, she says, noting that the CBIIC takes 30 per cent of its incubators from outside KU, and they need not necessarily be students.

“During an interview with NTV in 2011, Njuguna said his innovations had motivated him, so he hoped to come up with innovations that would help the country achieve Vision 2030.

Dr Kisato cites Silicon Valley in California, the technology hub of the United States, as a clear demonstration of the role of innovation in the economy.

“Silicon Valley has created jobs that did not exist. It has also opened up the market for immigrants to work there in areas of their expertise, thus creating a unique economy for the US,” says Dr Kisato, adding that ideally, innovation should be the creator of new enterprises and jobs.

Back home, the revolution brought about by the invention of mobile money transfer service is a perfect example.

“Look at the number of people employed in the value chain because of the M-Pesa innovation and you will understand the importance of innovation to a country,” says Dr Kisato.

“Because of the mobile money revolution, Kenyans can use mobile money transfer in their daily lives, which has earned international acclaim for the country.”

Therefore, besides creating jobs, innovation should increase the per capita income, and the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country.

It should also help increase literacy levels by encouraging education and learning.

“If innovation is very vibrant in a country, then chances are that you have more people interested in creating solutions that make the country better. So in essence, it makes education meaningful because the knowledge and skills learnt are used to create products and services for the consumer,” she says.

GOVERNMENT'S ROLE

From the foregoing, it is clear that the government has a major role to play in fostering innovation, whose ripple effects will improve the economy and the living standards of its people.

Dr Kisato believes that by creating an enabling environment, the government has done relatively well in creating space for innovation to thrive, although it is focused on information communication and technology (ICT).

That, coupled with the innovation hubs initiated by some local universities, is an indication that the government is doing something, she says.

However, the young innovators DN2 spoke to feel that the government is slow in releasing monetary rewards to innovators to enable them to embark on their journey into business.

“I was awarded Sh600,000 in August last year but I am yet to receive even a coin. But I know innovators who have received their money,” said an innovator who sought anonymity for fear of being stripped of his reward.

Before 2013, the National Commission for Science, Technology, and Innovation (Nacosti) was the only government body mandated to handle issues to do innovation in the country.

Then in 2013, the Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Act No. 28 of 2013 established two more state corporations, the Kenya National Innovation Agency (Kenia) and the National Research Fund (NRF).

The two bodies are charged with developing a national innovation system, and mobilising resources and funding research that delivers innovation respectively.

Even though DN2 learnt that 33 innovators were awarded money by the NRF to roll out their innovations last year, about half are yet to receive the money.

The CEO of the National Research Fund declined to comment on the matter and referred DN2 to the Ministry of Education instead.