Focus on the Leaves: Leveraging Frugal Tech to Solve Africa’s Greatest Challenges

Naadiya Moosajee is a South African engineer and social entrepreneur who boasts many accolades, including being the founder of WomHub, an incubator of woman-owned STEM businesses, the first of its kind in Africa. Naadiya has also been named among the 20 Youngest Power Women In Africa by Forbes Magazine, and is a World Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum who has worked in 26 countries to change the face of diversity in innovation and education.

An inspirational leader and thinker, she recently led a Masterclass for Fellows of The ROOM. Here are some of our top takeaways from this insightful event.

Frugal innovation and technology refers to products or services born out of necessity and in contexts that happen to be limited in available resources. — UNICEF

Push & pull factors driving frugal innovation

In Africa, the issue of scarce resources is paving the way to thinking more frugally around innovation and the economics around pricing.

Innovation is moving at a lightning pace. Over the last few years, its biggest drivers have included pull factors like digital transformation, the internet and cellphones, as well as push factors like an increase in scarce resources, disrupted global supply chains and other economic challenges. In Africa, the issue of scarce resources is paving the way to thinking more frugally around innovation and the economics around pricing. Yet, frugal innovation is not just for emerging markets. Across the globe, the “golden era” of absolute power and absolute resources has come to an end.

Functionality is better than aesthetics

If you want to make sure that you have a product that stands the test of time, focus its core components.

Naadiya explains the thinking around innovation using the analogy of a flower. We tend to focus on the pretty petals of a flower that blossom and bloom. Yet the leaves are the most important part — the industrial centre of processing and source of innovation in the plant. A flower cannot survive without the leaves; however, the leaves can survive without the flower. According to Naadiya, this is the key thinking behind making innovations last beyond a fad. If you want to make sure that you have a product that stands the test of time — focus on the leaves.

No need to reinvent the wheel

Credit: Slaaysourcecoders

Companies only need to be more innovative than their competitors; they do not need to reinvent the wheel.

Companies only need to be more innovative than their competitors. They do not need to reinvent the wheel; they just need to think about innovation differently by making small, localised improvements that can change the game entirely. By understanding the market, consumers, their pain points, and their behaviour, companies can grow their market share by innovating accordingly. Sometimes being a “first mover” is not enough. It’s extremely expensive to get into the marketplace, only to have a competitor steal market share by making small tweaks to a product and sell it as their own.

Pay attention to the “Wicked 7”

Innovators need to think of strategic solutions that will result in businesses and ventures that find solutions to the wicked problems of the world.

Climate collapse, inequality, extremism, war, corruption, health & livelihood, population & migration. These are the biggest challenges facing the world at present and are manifesting in every aspect of our lives. Using WomHub as an example, Naadiya explains how innovation can and should be used to tackle problems like inequality. Innovators need to think of strategic solutions that will result in businesses and ventures that find solutions to the wicked problems of the world.

Africa is fertile testing ground

Countries are beginning to accept the official use of cryptocurrency as a result of currency uncertainty challenges.

Fewer regulatory roadblocks on the continent make taking products to market much simpler. This makes Africa a fertile testing ground for innovation. For example, M-Pesa — the revolutionary mobile phone-based money transfer service that was developed in Kenya in 2007 — helps to solve two of the Wicked 7 problems, namely: population & migration, and health & livelihood challenges. This is an example of how African countries can leverage technology to leapfrog developmental challenges through innovation. Another example is countries — such as Central African Republic — that are beginning to accept the use of cryptocurrency as an official currency as a result of currency uncertainty challenges.

Women are better drivers

Credit: Andi Simon

When you have a more equal workforce, you will make more money.

When you have a more equal workforce, you will make more money. Drawing from experience in the mining sector, Naadiya shared the stark difference in maintenance costs of vehicles being driven by women versus when vehicles are driven by men. Men tend to be rougher on the vehicles, resulting in higher and more frequent servicing costs. Women in the same position allow for lower costs and therefore higher profits. If you want to make more money, hire more women.

The opportunities are boundless

As a continent with an abundance of young people that have adopted and embraced technology, the inspiration and opportunities are boundless.

When we start to solve logistical issues, improve inter-Africa trade, increase local manufacturing of goods, and create value-add for products, we will see a marked effect on the economic development of Africa. As a continent with an abundance of young people that have adopted and embraced technology, the inspiration and opportunities are boundless.

Naadiya’s Masterclass has reminded us that the flowers may be beautiful; they will draw attention and will get you applause and accolades. But if you want to make sure that you have a product that will stand the test of time — and that you can innovate — focus on the leaves.

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