Innovation in Africa has to Battle the Chief


By Nicolette Chinomona    17-Jun-2013 12:18 UTC+02:00

Is innovative thinking possible in Africa? For years the African continent has been synonymous with negative factors. With our disturbing appetite for war and conflict and the rampage of HIV/AIDS, when the world thinks Africa, it doesn’t necessarily think of innovation or technology or dynamic business cultures.  And in many ways, neither do many African business people. Most learning about business is brought in from the west, where  business practices have been developing and evolving for centuries. The development of business practices was parallel with the development of industry in the west, as focus changed gradually from agricultural based wealth, to mineral based wealth- up until the present information age.

Africa has skipped all of that and with the proliferation of information via media and the internet, our commercially young continent, still rich in resources, is the next frontier of business in the world. The only question is: will we can cash on it, or will the rest of the world beat us to the punch?

At the moment South Africa is leading the pack, but whether it will continue to do so will depend on whether business and industry leaders catch the innovation wave while they still can. Should be pretty obvious to most of them, right? Not really.

Innovation is about doing something new- thinking outside the box, not just to create new products and services, but to even create new processes. New  ways of thinking and doing things.

And that ladies and gentlemen is where the buck stops in Africa, because as most of you know it’s not easy to introduce new ideas into African society.

Traditionally African culture is a strong mix of historical factors and old values. The story of most of Africa goes something like this- there was a village, that village had a chief and an informal group of elders that helped the chief rule and the authority of the chief was final. The village was insulated greatly from the outside world, so all the rules and cultural precedents where created by the chief and elders, based on what they thought was right.  And to protect the community and prevent chaos and trouble, any attempt to circumvent the rules or authority, even outside of a rebellious bent- were crushed.

In Africa you do not ask your elders “Why?” you just do what you’re told. And if you do happen to have the courage to ask, why? You’ll have to face the same question on a different track “Why should it be done another way?”

A recent discussion with my grandmother proved this, I had asked why something was done a particular way, and that question earned me a dumbfounded glare and the response that “Because it’s how it’s supposed to be.” No matter how many facts I came up with to counter that belief- I came up hard against centuries of chieftainship authority. And any attempt to live outside that authority according to my grandmother was apt to get me into dangerous living. And that’s what the spirit of innovation is about- living dangerously, or at the very least being willing to try it another way.

This is what will hold South Africa and the continent back. While others might say that this is a harsh assessment of innovative possibilities, it’s actually a fair one. One of the blocks to creativity and therefore innovation is the idea that “Things are just not done that way,” it adds restrictions and boundaries to individuals who may have great ideas-forcing them to improve on the status quo and never venture into dangerous living- outside the box.

This isn’t to say we should abandon the authority of the chief, rather that we should be given permission to think beyond the wisdom of old. Business leaders should be open to allowing their “underlings” room to maneuver and discover what else is possible. And that will require NEW ways of thinking.

Business is evolving constantly, and rather than being threatened by the changes and failing to change with the environment- it’s time to embrace it. Yes, like anything worth having it will involve risk, but there’s a higher risk- the risk of being left behind as a business, as a nation and as a continent.

South Africa and the continent must learn and be allowed to ask “why?” and then do something about it.


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  1. Guest says:

    Very interesting article. However I must say that we in the west still face similar struggles of Ol school Chief’s within our various industries. Take social media for example, in a previous job 5 or 6 years ago, I had the task of trying to convince my elderly bosses about the merits of social media for business. I had hours and hours of conversation only for it to lead no where, but over time and patience they began to see results and slowly began to embrace it’s importance, to the level where they now have a dedicated role for social media 5 years later, but this took time, patience, education and most importantly…resutls! The root cause is the fear of change, if we can address this fear then it will make the rest of our jobs easier. I wish you luck in your innovations!

    • Nicolette Chinomona says:

      That’s true, I guess we need to figure out, why change is feared- is it just for fears sake or because there is the possibility of risk with any change- risk that can’t be accounted for until it’s too late. It’s like trying to balance on a tight rope I guess- sort of how people used to be against having TVs in homes, afraid that it would corrupt their children and it has! But it’s also allowed more information in. It’s a catch-22.

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