It was midday on a weekend, sitting with a friend sipping coffee enjoying the traditional coffee ceremony with popcorn in the Ambassador area that we started discussing the 10 billion birr budget dubbed the “revolving youth fund” aimed at massive job creation for the youth. My friend praised it as a good opportunity for the unemployed youth if they use the money wisely, noting the wide misuse of such funds previously.
We then jumped into discussing the potential business ideas the youth would come up with that will lead to success. We finally agreed that most of them would possibly end up doing the same thing that has been done before such as metal works, wood works, bricks manufacturing, and poultry production among others.
However, something was bothering us.
Why do all rush and find themselves trapped in the status quo?
One of the major impediments for start-ups around the world is the lack of finance. From the perspective of providing a solution to this bottleneck, the very idea of setting up a revolving fund might have a tremendous positive impact.
But in today’s digital and interconnected world where consumers have the pleasure of choosing their favorites among the plethora of supplies, solving the financial issue is only half of the story. The Herculean and mind-blowing task of devising an appealing value proposition is the primary factor. This is the product that reaches the end users.
Yet delving into the norm, most start-ups in Ethiopia are joining the market with the same products that already exist in the market or will be attempting to solve problems that are not concerning to consumers. The product quality, customer channel, customer relations as well as the very nature of the product does not show any deviation from the common trend.
Living in this digital age where knowledge is abundant and networking is an easy task using the various platforms, it is not easy to come up with a new product that fills the need of the consumers. Neither can they come up with a mechanism that might change the way the market dynamic works. It’s possible for many start-ups could end up duplicating each other.
What is missing is innovation. Which is both simple and complex. Simple because it is something anyone can do and complex as it needs courage and sacrifice.
Innovation begins with generating innovative ideas uncommon in the society that will potentially solve the existing problems of customers or become a guide to a totally new platform. The most innovative products that shook, shaped shape and changed change the workings of the world today from Apple to Facebook are the “big ideas” of individuals who do not even have college degrees.
The demographic dividend of Ethiopia looks favorable as almost 70pc of the total population is below the age of 30. This signifies that the country has one key component conducive to innovation – the youth who are energetic, risk-takers, and change agents. Yet, having this decisive huge share of the population is one thing and tapping its very potential is another thing.
In order to have innovations sprout up among the youth in Ethiopia, there are enormous challenges that need to be addressed in addition to save financing which the government is trying to address. It all begins with the environment.
Despite the aspirations of the youth, they live in a society that barely encourages new ideas. Whenever someone comes up with a new idea people are quick to point out one hundred one reasons why it will not work. There is a fear of failure. Not only afraid of failure, but to accommodate failure as an individual or an institution. There is no way to accommodate failure individually or institutionally. People like to avoid risk. Yet the fact goes the other way. A society that forestalls risk stifles innovation. As the founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg stated, “The biggest risk is not taking any risk.”
It seems the rapidly changing global and local environment coupled with the instant flow of information in different social media and mainstream media puts pressure on the youth. They understand that the world and the local environment is constantly changing. The youth are then facing the challenge of coping up with this new reality.
The youth seem to be looking for shortcuts. Since shortcuts are more about focusing on the end results whatever the means, it obstructs the very core value of innovation. One needs to have the courage and the gut to innovate. It requires tenacity, commitment, and perseverance. One has to have the audacity of challenging orthodoxies, refuting dogmas and disrupting the status quo. Success cannot come without a price. It entails effort, time, intellect, and capital investment.
With all the endurance needed, it is fair to say innovation is the shortest shortcut to come to fruition as it impacts the wider society and possibly the world. It would be wise to take the lessons of Steve Jobs in that he was able to recover and change the world after he was fired from a company he created.
Imagination is the key to innovation. It is one of the ingredients the youth need to come up with new ideas. This includes the capacity to scan the market and better anticipate the future.
Imagination allows people to fly anywhere with thoughts that may not bound itself with logic. Imagination helps to explore opportunities from the myriad of problems in the surrounding. It turns problems into opportunities that open the path for innovative solutions. It is through imagination that crazy ideas arise.
The youth in Ethiopia and most developing countries are living in a challenging environment where resources are scarce and infrastructure is poor. Despite the overarching predicaments, it is imperative to develop a positive attitude that one can be an agent of change. This requires the ability to see the glass half full.
In today’s world where varieties of products are chasing the same customer base, a start-up should bring to the scene something innovative to stand out from the crowd. This might include convenience, accessibility, customization or anything else that relieves consumers from their worries.
On the side of the government, apart from widening mechanisms of access to finance, which is considered one of the top impediments for start-ups, lots of facilities need to be put in place. The country needs to capitalize on the potential of the tech-savvy youth.
For this to happen, high-speed internet has to be accessible with a fair price purchasing power of the people taken into consideration. A working space the youth can use to incubate innovative businesses and share experiences with coaching would help. This could be a component in the youth centers that are already available in Addis Abeba and possibly other regions.
It is crucial to think of a wider customer base in regional, continental as well as global level. If someone wants to make transactions with customers outside of Ethiopia, a credit card is needed. But this system is not available yet. Even to attend an online course or to buy a book from Amazon, there are lots of obstacles. The country is still lagging behind from the rest of the world in terms of utilizing technology and its benefits.
Most of today’s world-changing innovations are either in IT and related matters or instigated by it. This is an extremely interconnected world where technology is playing an insurmountable role in which many American companies outsource their customer relationships to be managed in India through high-speed internet.
Talking to people from all walks of life, there is a common stereotype that innovation is something in the distant past that the youth in Ethiopia are not destined to particpate in. But it all begins with simple ideas. It is all about turning into reality the wild ideas put forward. It is all about making the target customers’ life simple and easy.
The government needs to embrace innovation to sustainably create jobs and keep the rate of start-up failures low.
Look at the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony scattered all over the corners of the city while some thought it will be obsolete a few years back. But it is thriving in the market, adding values of convenience, accessibility, and customization to customers. This is what innovation is all about.
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