I have decided to branch away from the PM articles for this one and visit one of my top worry points about Botswana’s economy: Lack of an innovative culture.
This article was partly triggered by the recent state of the nation address by HE, where, despite some progressive steps to boost the economy, innovation is still not receiving the right attention.
The restructuring of the ministry and the Innovation Hub is mentioned but I believe this country can do more. Also after attending the recent Botswana Diamond Manufactures Association Town Hall meeting, I was reminded that despite the success of attracting foreign investors in the sector, there is no comprehensive programme to develop a robust knowledge system that will create value beyond diamonds and other minerals that we are currently so dependent on.
We have to understand that the day the minerals run out or prices crush, the investors are the first out and we will be left with nothing except for machines’ that we know so well only how to operate. Creating a robust innovation system that ensures that R&D programmes take shape, patents are produced here, that we become less of “operators” and become creators, then this will become a much better investment and we will be in a much better shape to deal with recessions.
I was not surprised when I read recently that Singapore is one the countries coming fast out of the recession (over 5% growth in Quarter 3) powered by the manufacturing sector that thrives on innovation.
To me it is not surprising because Singapore is amongst the top ranked countries when in comes to innovation and it already investing heavenly in the next generation of technologies which are genetics and the combination of genetics and IT. As a top futurist Juan Adriquez likes to remind many countries that those that do not invest in this next wave technologies will continue lingering at the bottom of the economic scales.
We have to first start acknowledging that we are not an innovative society and this is apparent from the poor scoring in competitiveness reports and innovation indices.
As a management consultant, I see this all the time in our organisations where breakthrough ideas are almost a taboo and consistent reluctance to shake commonly held assumptions. The easy part is to simply copy what others have done regional and globally through the much popular benchmarking trips. The young managers coming with innovative ideas are castigated and quickly reminded that their time will come!
Benchmarking is one of the most popular past times particularly for government projects and instead of learning how not to do things or how to do things better, the interest focuses on copying blindly what others have done. We have to realize that without innovation and an inner culture of discovery, our economy is sitting very dangerously.
History is littered with many examples of countries that dropped from success like ours to the bottom of the rankings. We need to protect this country form this possibility.
Subtle examples that show how reluctant to change we can be include RB1 radio news song (I think its been running for over 30 years!) and Air Botswana famous peanuts and biltong snack! There are other many examples that show that we take comfort in maintaining old practices making our society dull and uninspiring.
We have to accept that unless we do things differently, building textile factories and relying on relaxed tax regimes for easy access of our products to major markets such as the US and Europe is actually perpetuating this culture. It is encouraging us not to be innovative. We need to build a culture where we can produce innovative products which the global customer desires because of their uniqueness and not because it is a product from a third world country and needs protection.
As one innovation expert Rowan Gibson likes to put it, we have to continuously challenge commonly held assumptions, challenge orthodoxies (long held beliefs), harness global trends and discontinuities, and learn to understand unvoiced customer needs.
This does not take way the fact that we still have to leverage our distinctive competencies and competitive advantages, which I believe we also have not excelled. I do not believe we have adequately leveraged our free range beef, our diamonds, indigenous knowledge and others.
We have the Innovation Hub, Human Resources Strategy, National Research, Science and Technology Plan, S&T Policy, Research Organisations and others. Some of these have been around for a few decades with minimal impact as we do not offer the world any innovative products and services beyond minerals. In my view without and comprehensive national innovation system supported by the right level leadership, we will miss a big opportunity to lead Africa in the areas that matter; creating new knowledge and sustainable prosperity for our people.
*Oabona Kgengwenyane is the Director for InnoLead Consulting and X-Pert Group offering Management Consulting Services and can be contacted on 3909102 or 71303682.