Innovation has been quite the buzz word lately, and truth is the tales of what is happening in Kenya and Africa in general along matters technology have reverberated across the continents. This buzz has been fueled mainly by product and service innovation where local needs have given rise to globally recognized models – think Mpesa, Kopa Credo and M-shwari. This is to say that the wow factor has not been in the technology itself but more on the uptake and impact.
Relevance in a rapidly changing space means that unless we continuously churn out products and services that scale and are sustainable, will be committed to the archives, and this I am afraid is the path we are headed to with a product or service centric innovation model. Why, you ask? It is that many other factors are at play in the grand scheme of things and it is hardly ever the brilliance of a product or service alone that delivers the payload.
I wish to explore another angle to innovation; that of entire ecosystems. I believe the key to creating a sustainable innovation pipeline lies here, where we look at the bigger picture. As telecommunications has thus far brought forth some of the more prominent and recognized services, I will use it as a case study. Mpesa grew out of extraordinary circumstances right from the idea phase through to its deployment and this is evidenced by the difficulty other rollouts are facing in other world markets trying to replicate. Service replication is easy, but without the alignment of other critical components, then success cannot be guaranteed.
Vision Mobile released a innovation tool box whose insights ring true and could be mapped on our local situation to give better visibility to the ecosystem innovation issue. The core is that there are five pillars that support this innovation, namely: software foundations, developer communities, distribution channels, discovery and monetization.
Software foundation’s would be where the telcos open up their systems securely via a robust set of application programming languages to allow for a larger pool of ideas to be developed. This is already happening locally with Airtel making available sixty four API sets ranging in function from messaging, advertising, location, voice and mobile commerce with Safaricom also deploying a new service delivery platform to offer a certain level of visibility to developers.
This is where we seem to have stopped along this journey though. Developer engagement needs to be improved upon drastically. The Safaricom Innovation Board, now defunct, was to deliver a platform to connect with the developer community; lack of internal focus and a service champion – who is yet to be recruited saw the initiative paused. Airtel also seem preoccupied with other issues.
Distribution and discovery can be easily sorted with a well thought out application or services store. Often times, this is operator driven but globally there are indie stores that have done quite well in positioning what has mostly been output as apps. We have USSD and SMS channels to think about in African markets.
Monetization takes us back to an issue that creeps up many times. For innovation to blossom, it needs to be sustainable, and this can be achieved by rethinking business models around current services – such a reviews in revenue share agreements, which in Africa are skewed to the operators unlike other markets, and developing new models for services that did not exist.
These five pillars underpin what we need to put in place to ensure we have an environment that will support sustainable innovation, as we will have focused on the structures necessary to deliver success and not individual products and services.