product, startups, Technology, Why?

Design Thinking in the Nigerian Context

It’s 2 AM and the electricity goes out. Annoyed, you walk outside to turn the generator on. In the process of turning the generator on, you realize there’s no gas in the gen. In the pitch black of night, its not difficult to see the large red canister of gas a couple of steps away. You get the canister and start to attempt to fill the gen. You realize there’s too much gas in the canister and its difficult to control the amount that goes into the gen so you start to think… You go into the kitchen and get a used plastic bottle, cut it in half and now you’ve created a funnel and cup. You head back outside, put the makeshift funnel on the gen and begin to fill the cup with gas and pour it in the funnel. You fill the tank, turn the gen on, and go back to sleep.

That story is design thinking in action. I’d argue with anyone that design thinking is not a process that Nigerians are foreign to. In fact, it’s been at the ethos at most grassroots solutions. There are so many small inventions and quick fixes that I see everyday. Why don’t you see some of these solutions in the market? I believe the challenges are threefold:

  1. How do you get people to see their solution as valuable outside themselves?
  2. How do you provide the platform for people to producttize/ commercialize their already working prototypes?
  3. How do you protect ideas and create incentives for people to continue to create?

How do you get people to see their solution as valuable outside themselves? 

This is consequence of innovating to live vs innovating to thrive. People are brilliant problem solvers in developing markets because they have to in order to survive. Design thinking concepts tend to become a framework that most people operate in without knowing it.  The challenge is being able to think beyond the problem, which is challenging for the problem solvers. I would suggest getting up to the balcony like in this story below:

Let’s say you are dancing in a big ballroom. . . . Most of your attention focuses on your dance partner, and you reserve whatever is left to make sure you don’t collide with dancers close by. . . . When someone asks you later about the dance, you exclaim, “The band played great, and the place surged with dancers.”

But, if you had gone up to the balcony and looked down on the dance floor, you might have seen a very different picture. You would have noticed all sorts of patterns. . . you might have noticed that when slow music played, only some people danced; when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never seemed to dance at all. . . . the dancers all clustered at one end of the floor, as far away from the band as possible. . . . You might have reported that participation was sporadic, the band played too loud, and you only danced to fast music.

. . .The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. . . .

If you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor.*-Ronald Heifetz

That often the most challenging place for problem solvers to get to but is central to seeing the value in an idea or a new process.

How do you provide the platform for people to producttize/ commercialize their already working prototypes?

This a more systemic and structural problem. With a lack of manufacturing and capital in developing markets, it’s often impossible to scale a new idea. I believe the improvement of technologies like 3D printing hold a tremendous opportunity to decrease the cost and increase the accessibility of manufacturing to the masses.

How do you protect ideas and create incentives for people to continue to create?  

This is an interesting challenge that all countries face now. How do you protect people who create, while encouraging the free exchange of ideas so people can build upon them? Legal spaces like IP and copyright may not be as developed in a place like Nigeria but it presents a great opportunity to re-imagine what IP/Copyright law can look like in the information sharing age.


The Fourth Pillar


Tony Elumelu published an article on Reuters on January 3, 2014 click here to read.

Mr. Elumelu discussed three critical components for a “Marshal Plan” for Africa.

  1. policy reform and a commitment to the rule of law
  2. investment in infrastructure
  3. commitment to developing Africa’s manufacturing and processing industries

While I definitely agree with his three pillars, I believe that there’s opportunity to integrate other facets of society in developing a holistic plan for Africa’s development. To get a better perspective, lets take a dive into the technical assistance portion of the actual Marshall Plan.

As part of the Marshall Plan, the United States appropriated funds for technical assistance to Europe. The United States sent hundreds of technical advisers to Europe and funded over 24,000 European engineers, politicians and business officials to visit the United States and learn best practices to implement in their respective countries. The institutional exchange of knowledge ensured that Europe could sustain accelerated growth.

In order to truly sustain and capitalize on an African “Marshall plan”, a fourth pillar focused on human capital should be added. We need to train and develop the continents young adults for 21st century jobs. While manufacturing and processing industries will continue to grow to sustain Africa’s consumer needs, its important to look past industries that will become heavily automated in the next 10-20 years.

So what form does human capital development take in the grand scheme? Well,  a couple of ideas

  • Education overhaul: Focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)
  • Develop research centers (public-private partnership)
  • Accelerating reverse brain drain
  • Offering tax incentives for continuous workforce development

These are just a few examples that will help support the other three that Mr. Elumelu discussed. By adding human capacity building to the mix, you build on Africa’s most beneficial asset; its people.