We need Innovation Supply and Demand Side Responses

At an innovation event held by the Netherlands Embassy in Harare yesterday (9 June), we had an exciting and passionate panel of four - a visiting Dutch Entrepreneur, two Zimbabwean young promoters of tech hubs, and the Minister of ICT, Hon. Supa Mandiwanzira.  Many subjects were covered - including lack of funding for promoters, innovators, and entrepreneurs; insufficient Government support by way of infrastructure and simplified regulations; exclusion of rural populations from innovations that are either not relevant to their lives or inaccessible; as well as challenges that need to be tackled in future.

Listening to the full range of interventions, conversations, and comments; and watching the flow of tweets, it became clear that there is a lot focus on the Innovation Supply Side  - products being developed, ideas needing incubation, and institutional mechanisms needed to nurture a viable and sustainable innovation/entrepreneurial culture built on the foundation of a well education Zimbabwean population with a youth hungry for change in their lives.  What I heard less of was Innovation Demand Side: from farmers, business people, and ordinary citizens faced with problems that need solutions that are potentially sitting in the minds, books, and drawers of eager entrepreneurs.  The Minister and a few in the audience briefly talked about positive changes that ICT could bring to the Government Department handling registration (passport, births, national identity cards, and various business procedures) and how using a platform from a German firm progress was being made.  The use of ICT to reform Doing Business processes ranked high in these discussions.  I thought comments from the Minister of ICT in these areas were a good start, and he followed them with an offer to facilitate the adoption of innovations by any innovator/entrepreneur who went to his office. 

While several hubs have been established in the country to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in the ICT field, there is yet no mechanism to aggregate the full range of challenges facing investors and business people in a framework that can enable the hubs to mentor those with potential solutions.  There is also a shortage of innovators working outside the ICT sector, although there are some gallant efforts to link potential ICT solutions with problems in the physical world of agriculture, water, roads, and others; but more needs to be done. These are not jobs for the government or NGO, but tasks for the market to find the paths that are walked by innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, businesses, and those grappling with development problems so that the power of the market can exert its influence in the natural selection of survivors from the many ideas coming from the hubs, Universities, and other institutions engaged in the search of solutions that meet real needs, have a commercial or social value, and can justify their being financed from private or public funds.