In any country, economic growth depends on how successful its people are in turning innovations into sellable products and services. Developed countries have reached where they are today owing to the importance they attach to generating new knowledge and products, and selling them abroad. This is a feat that Kenya can achieve too, but only if its people can realise the commercial value of the little inventions that they come up with every day.
That this country has an enormous pool of creatives is beyond doubt. The range of products that are presented during trade fares - from solar cookers, electronic cloth lines that bring clothes in when the rain falls and return them out when the sun shines, and exceptional diet formulas for infants and invalids among many other inventions - is simply astounding. Top up this ingenuity with some little understanding of how to market the innovations and you have what it takes to spawn local multi-nationals.
In order to better understand where and how new ideas that can have an economic impact come about, let us briefly consider the various categories of innovations.
Ideally, innovations can crop up in any field of product design, manufacture, or service delivery. The field not withstanding, innovations can be classified into three major groups: disruptive and incremental; product, process and conceptual; and replacement and enhancement.
Disruptive Incremental Innovations
Disruptive innovations involve leaving behind an existing technology and embracing a new one. The printing press, telegraph, telephone and computers form a series of discontinuous innovations. Such innovations cause a dramatic shift in the way people or firms perform some activity.
A clear sign that a disruptive innovation in on the way is when an existing technology goes beyond the needs of customers. This then creates demand for a simpler, more affordable, and perhaps less powerful technology to satisfy customer needs.
Locally, the Moneymaker pump can easily fit in this category. The high cost of fuel-powered water pumps and the corresponding high price of fuel had for long threatened to put irrigation beyond the means of many average farmers. In other words, the already existing technology of fuel-powered hydro pumps was not serving a large percentage of the farming population, which needed a cheaper and easier to maintain machine. This is what gave room for invention of the pedal-powered Moneymaker pump, which is distributed locally by Aprotech Ltd. Excessive technological advancements leave behind them a vacuum that savvy innovators can easily capitalise on.
A second sign is when a product reaches its technical limits. If a product has served people well but happens to reach a technical limitation, people tend to seek an alternative to replace the current one. To illustrate this, consider that for years on end offices across the world relied on typewriters to prepare their documents. However, faced by an ever increasing demand for flexibility to alter documents, and the threat of rapidly shrinking office space to accommodate traditional forms of document storage, the type writer was replaced by computers.
This modern technology not only offers an easier way of document preparation, but also allows for easier analysis of complex data, besides offering a digital filing space on its hard disk. The demise of the typewriter has today spawned more innovations in software engineering among other fields of Information Technology (IT), both locally and internationally. More than any other time in human history, creative people are now striving to meet the ever growing demand for IT products and services.
Incremental innovations, on the other hand, present another frontier where locals can try out their expertise. Once a technology has become commercially accepted, industries compete on the basis of who can add exceptional features and improve the product's performance.
A simple example will suffice. Since the invention of the carrot grater and its subsequent acceptance as standard kitchen equipment, it has undergone numerous modifications. It has seen blades attached to it both horizontally and vertically, and it has been given a wider body too.
Today, there is the traditional grater retailing in the market, and beside it a more expensive (more profitable to make and sell) item - a modified grater - going by various names such as dicer and Super Slicer.
Most innovations are indeed incremental, and they simply improve performance and functionality, or ease of use. This process is also known as value addition and can be done locally on countless numbers of standard products.
Product, Process and Conceptual Innovations
Another way to classify innovations is to consider whether they are product, process or intangible innovations. Product innovations include doing such things as adding Neem or aloe Vera to soap and other beauty products to give them a medicinal value. Process innovations would include coming up with an easy way of extracting fuel from sweet bananas, while an example of conceptual innovation would include coming up with a new method of teaching that ensures students do not forget anything they learn.
Replacement and Enhancement Innovations
We can also classify innovations by whether they replace or enhance an existing technology. For instance, although movie makers and cinema hall owners feared that introduction of videotapes would mean the end of the movie industry; it nonetheless enhanced people's opportunities for entertainment.
Essentially, the primary driving force behind an invention is its functionality. The product has to serve its intended purpose better than those already in the market. This not withstanding, there are many factors that have seen the rise and success of mediocre products while potentially great ones end up never seeing the light of day. One of such factors is the packaging and marketing of innovations to the people with the necessary resources to push them to the next level.
Most innovators, short of resources or for strong attachment to their inventions among other avoidable reasons, try to be their own technicians, design and process engineers, managers, and marketers, all in the same person. Alternatively, they team up with people who end up exploiting the novel ideas at the expense of the innovators.
Once an invention has been developed into a potentially marketable idea, as earlier said, you need to present it to prospective partners. These are the people who will risk their resources and expertise to bring your invention from the idea stage into a final and sellable product. This is crucial to the success of any invention.
In Kenya, this is perhaps the stage at which most discoveries die. Most local industries prefer manufacturing foreign products under licence and only a few are enthusiastic enough to try out a new product line. Nonetheless, the success of Juanco, a local agrochemical manufacturing company, among other such ventures, proves it is possible to raise an indigenous company from a simple idea.
To start with, and in order to protect your right to the ownership of your invention, you need to be able to talk about your invention in a simple language without revealing your secret formula. Until you have done this effectively, you are not yet ready to approach prospective partners.
The wisest way to reveal the commercial opportunity that your discovery represents is by preparing a product summary. You can use this one-page write up to explain your ideas without risking your patent rights. After the idea has attracted the attention of a potential and trustworthy partner, you can then ask him or her to sign a confidentiality agreement so you may disclose more.
In case you already have a patent pending or one has already been granted and your invention is well-developed, you can prepare a complete product brochure illustrating everything in detail.
However, one of the most common mistakes made by first time inventors is proceeding to patent an invention before seeking a marketing partner. Experienced innovators will tell you that without the input of expert marketers, it is virtually impossible to complete the process of making a sellable model of the idea.
Likewise, the quality and other previously unseen capabilities of your idea can be discovered during discussions with partners, and such improvements to the original idea need to be detailed in the patent registration documents. This shows why it is advisable to file patent applications only after assessing the commercial value of the product or service in question.
© 2007 John Wanjora
First Published SMEs Today Magazine, Nairobi, under pen name Omari Karani.