INNOVATION LESSONS FROM TSHAKA - get inspiration from solitude and your environment

Today I was invited to spend a few hours with a group of young innovators and their audience at Pitch Night held at Celebration Centre in Harare.  I was expected to say something inspirational, but instead I found myself quite inspired by what I heard from three young pitchers engaging with an audience of close to a hundred members. 

When it came to my turn, for inspiration I turned to Tshaka and some legends around his life.  Stories abound of Tshaka spending much time on his own, on the hills and valleys; running, exercising, practising the art of war, training his troops, thinking, or simply issuing instructions on a variety of issues.

One of Tshaka’s major challenge was how to produce the most efficient fighting machine in the region, capably of taking on and winning any battle among his contemporaries. Two major issues were of concern to him: military weapons and battle formations

The history of how Tshaka fashioned his weapons of war is reasonably well known – an example of innovating from experiences by shortening the spear, developing shields from treated cowhides, and even selecting his soldiers based on their height (short men are said to have been put to death!).   Less well known is about his innovation on battle formations built around ideas he got from cattle horns and ocean waves.

While sitting on the beach, watching ocean waves come in with regularity and growing force, Tshaka was fascinated by an observation that even when the tide was going out, the waves still came forward while retreating.  He was impressed by the relentlessness of waves, and their force.  It is said that he would put to death any of his fighters coming from battle with wounds on his back; it meant he was not moving forward while retreating.

Tshaka was also intrigued by Zulu cattle horns, and his experience with tending and wrestling with stubborn bulls left him convinced that the design of horns was for efficiency and effectiveness.  Horns had sharp tips and broad bases – underlining effectiveness and strength as a cattle's defensive weapon.

From these observations, Tshaka developed the “Waves and Pincer Movement” battle strategy.   In all future battles, his fighters were to come at the enemy in small groups from the front, at intervals Tshaka would determine; imitating the waves.  At the same time, his fighters were to attach from the sides in small groups, imitating the horns.  Groups of fighters coming from the sides and front, in waves, and relentlessly, were to prove decisive in Tshaka’s many battles with various nations/tribes in the whole of Southern Africa. 

Tshaka had learnt from his environment, and as entrepreneurs we can learn from our environment.  Consider a few facts for demonstration effect: Africa’s annual food import bill is over US$40 billion; and Zimbabwe’s trade balance during the first six months of 2015 was made up of over US$3 billion worth of imports and  just over US$1.2 billion worth of exports (leaving a deficit of US$1.8 billion - a business opportunity).  Furthermore, informal traders across Africa, especially in the cities are considered a nuisance; although most of what they sell are imported items for everyday use, that are often of basic and sometimes poor quality (more business opportunities!).

Innovatorpreneurs need to watch, reflect, and innovate.  An understanding of African consumer behavior should force our entrepreneurs to reflect and then innovate.  Tinned tomatoes are for instance mainly water, often imported at great cost in tins.  Our innovatorpreneurs need to ask: why are we not replacing imported tinned tomatoes with locally dried tomatoes that can be reconstructed with water at the time of use (they would be cheaper to transport and cheaper to store).  Similarly, plastic buckets manufactured in factories around the world are convenient, but our innovatorpreneurs need to ask: what is wrong with Vapostori/Jua Kali/village artisan hand-made buckets?

The future African innovator needs to find time to think, alone!  To walk, alone!  Walking in the streets with eyes fixed on cell phone and tablet screens, bumping into people, and hardly aware of one's surroundings is not going to inspire us.  Eyes glued on these screens will tell us what our friends are doing on Facebook, Twitting, watching on Youtube, or engrossed in various social media products; but it is unlikely to inspire us much. 

We need to think and act like Tshaka. We need to walk our streets, suburbs, rural villages, urban human settlements, various markets as well as our forests and savannahs; without the cell phone or the tablet as the only thing in front of our eyes.   We need to reflect deeply on problems, but this is only possible if we take time to observe and understand them.  We need to think differently about solutions, but that is only possible if we are familiar with how existing problems are being tackled. 

Thinking and acting like Tshaka in our environment today will help us innovate for tomorrow and take to the market products that will solve tomorrow’s problems.

With this reflection on some lessons from Tshaka's,  innovators and entrepreneurs stand challenged!