Can Africans Innovate? Part 3

African Thinker

Organizations should be born in innovation and should be run in innovation if they are to be continuously effective and create a lasting impact on society. The founder must start with an innovative, distinctive idea, and the team must also be innovative in all their operations, no matter what they are doing.

As we have seen, the status quo in Africa is just to follow others blindly. There is little shame in just copying the next person without the least bit of effort in thought or self-differentiation. Most people do not realize that this really is a confession that they are unable to think for themselves, that they are only capable of following another person’s thoughts; without him they are lost. There is nothing worse than such a statement about yourself.

This lack of shame for lack of thought in our culture goes beyond just business or organizational innovation. This is evident even when one talks to people about their political “ideas.” It takes only a few minutes before you realize that the person is saying the same things the last person you talked to was saying and the person before that, ad infinitum. It is very rare to meet a person who sounds like they have thought deeply about their position.

So, when you ask someone what they think Zambia needs to do to develop, the predictable answers you will hear are: “You know, we need to invest in agriculture. That’s what we need. This country doesn’t take agriculture seriously.”

And before you ask further, they quickly add “Oh, and we need good leaders, not these selfish leaders we have. We need good leaders and we need to get serious about corruption.”

Right. But that’s what you heard someone else say; are you able to develop the thought any further than what you heard from Jim or Jack? It doesn’t even have to be a right idea, but can you add your own idea?

Whenever we are watching the news, we can usually predict what the “official” at a public function is about to say. If it is someone from Ministry of Technology, they will say something like “Technology is very important, the world is changing fast and we need to adapt,…” etc. If the event has to do with education, it will be “Education is very important, a country can not survive without education, our children are the future leaders, …”…etc. Ministry of Environment? “We need to protect our environment, our environment is very important …” OK, but what’s new about that? Why is it on the NEWS? Is there anything in the speech that is unique to this speaker?

If the person is not from the government, their speech will read “Our appeal to the government is that they must find means and ways to solve this problem because it is very important …” You will never hear any thoughtful suggestions or solutions from them, just “appeals to the government” to find solutions.

If the interview is with an expert just before the annual budget presentation, the answer is always “You know, we expect to see a pro-poor budget. These statistics of economic growth are just figures, the poverty out there is still deep, so we need a pro-poor budget.” Well, OK, which is what the other person said before last year’s budget, and the year before that. Anything else? Why are we even interviewing you if you’re just regurgitating the same old statements?

And of course the news reporters don’t get bored reporting on the same speeches and statements; they look genuinely impressed with the same repeated answer each time.

Even their questions as reporters are predictable. At the start of a studio interview, no matter how simple the subject is, they will usually begin, “For the sake of our viewers out there, can you define what ‘climate change’ means (or whatever the subject is)”? (Have you ever heard Christianne Armanpour ask that?). Don’t just ask the question because it is asked by everyone, think first if a definition is required, especially if it’s a well-known subject.

At the end of an interview, we are likely to hear the question: “So what is your appeal to the people out there?” Or “Any last words?” which, again, is a confession by the interviewer that they can’t actually think of an interesting question: a confession of lack of thought, lack of a focused consciousness.

The most disappointing “thinkers,” of course, are the University of Zambia (UNZA) graduates from the Humanities and “Social Sciences”. Ask them the same question about what we need to develop as a nation. I guarantee that the answer will be: “You know, we need to fight this neocolonialism of the imperialist West. These white people (or Chinese) control everything, you know? They come here and take everything just like they did in colonial times and our government is just watching…” It’s either that or they will repeat the other rant about selfish leaders, agriculture, etc.

If you’ve talked to one of them, you’ve talked to almost all of them, because they automatically parrot the ideas of a few “Afrocentric” lecturers who have been teaching there for many years – and even they just parrot other people they’ve read, which is why it is the same arguments you hear whether you speak to a graduate of UNZA or any other African University. The narrative is identical, and yet they are incredibly passionate when rehashing these same identical ideas – which is quite fascinating. How can you be so proud of imitating someone else? Can’t you at least even find a new way of explaining that same point, in a way that is unique to you?

How do we expect people who are trained to parrot the lecturer (or the text book) to ever be innovative when they finally start their jobs or businesses?

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9 Responses to “Can Africans Innovate? Part 3”

  1. avatar ChemTalk says:

    Interesting how you articulate your articles with such clarity that opens my eyes to see what’s really going on out there and how the ‘copying’ looks normal to us Africans.. Thank you for encouraging me to think different than others..

  2. avatar Penwhiz says:

    Eye opening. I do agree with your words, am trying to find a way to phrase this so I don’t sound like I am imitating anyone. Well I would also add the other reason is that most Zambians are comfortable were they are. There is no reason to innovate because that thought process is not natured as a child. For example when a child kicks a ball you tell him stop and read his books. Some parents even beat the child. I was fortunate, when I was a child and my father saw a keeness in me for books, we would go to Bookworld every three weeks or so to pick up a new book. Today, I am an aspiring writer because my parents did not curtail that hunger for books in me. Something needs to be done to notice talents in our children from a young age and nurture that talent. Great work you are doing.

  3. avatar kanda says:

    Chanda i have loved this article, it has been very enlightening from Part 1 through to 3 and how i wish this could reach out to a lot of people out there in our country ,we would see wonders and more originality.thanks again.

  4. avatar Yvonne Mtumbi says:

    Great read! I agree there is probably very little innovation going on in Zambia… Africa is getting there yes…and what is so amazing about it in Zambia is that the common person thinks innovation resides in Science and Technology (worse in a test tube!) and you go to the scientist or engineer he cant define nor apply it outside what he learnt. at the end of the day no one can put a finger to it. I like the way you bring out innovation in your articles… you “intangilse”( lol as long as we are innovating might as well start with creating new words!)innovation because there is a common misconception that its always to do with science and technology.(hard ware!) Great articles!

  5. avatar maikalange says:

    Interesting read indeed. I think innovation will be born when we start to ask “why?”. It could be that we are lazy, or comfortable but all we do is just go with the flow, we don’t want to be “that guy” who thinks he is “some of us”. Such sentiments keep us from innovating.

    My car has factory-made reflectors in the front and in the back – yet ZP will fine me for not having “reflectors” in the form of tape. Why?

    We have been paying TV license for over 8 years now, and yet to this day the Main News has no fixed length, structure, content or direction. Why?

    I’ll tell you why. It’s because this is how things have always been done. No one asks why.


  6. Yes, its not about Africans, its about can you (as a person, not African. Your question can Africans innovate is very patrionizing and I think you come from the old school that say Africans can not think. Can you imagine the same question put differently “Can Europeans innovate”. You take it for granted that Europeans by virtue of “alleged superiority can innovate”. Further you take it for granted that Blacks are stupid cannot innovate. You need to clean your mind from stereotypes otherwise you will damage minds of Africans who read these articles.

    Yes Africa needs to deal with problem of whites who come here and impose themselves on big jobs and big role suffocating the Africans. It is a problem that need to be addressed. In America they are tough on people who come in and take American jobs. Same in UK, France so on.

  7. avatar Rosemary says:

    I’m an UNZA BUSINESS MAJOR graduate 1980(Distinction), and I do not parrot anyone’s thoughts but my own. WE ALL,Zambians, especially us educated ones, whether educated at home or abroad need to go back to the drawing board.We need to examine where we are coming from(our roots, cos a plant without roots cannot survive, can it? Most of us do not even know where our parents come from let alone been there…do we know our history as a people?…do our children?…do we have an identity?…in a crowd, can we be handpicked by anyone and be identified as a Zambian without being told?…) If we can identify WHO WE ARE, that is the 1st step.Then where are we today?…and where do we want to be tomorrow?…AS A PEOPLE, as a nation…

  8. avatar The Zee says:

    Zambia Blog – Keep up the message. My take – Africans tend to thnk it is not their tradition to think innovatively. As an engineer who has several inventions patented in the USA and Europe, I think Africans look at inqusitive minds as “childish”. They ask “why do you want to know how this works?” Just use it. They also do not have or set real targets of achievement at the end of a job or project. They also tend not to have established processes for executing work. As such anything goes and it is difficult to direct or punish wrong doers when you do not have an established process.
    American, German, Chinese, Indian and many people are always looking to figure out how something is done or manufactured. Zambians might have copper under their soil but they do not know how to find it and get it out themselves and thre does not seem to be a plan for achieving this at a certain date. The US brought German scientists (Von Braun)to NASA to get their space and missile rocket programes started. The rest is history. The Chinese have copied many USA designs. They have also come up with their own designs more advanced than what they started with.

  9. avatar Paul Nyambe says:

    Good observation mr Chisala. All your articles in this subject highlight very critical issues for which i commend you for the passionate analysis. I am Promoter of the Youth Entrepreneurs Network of Zambia and I want to add my thoughts and respond to the question posed by your article head: Can Africans innovate?

    My answer is Yes! Africans can innovate but we need to shift our awareness. We need to understand that assumptions that we held in the old (industrial) economy(where we believed that someone else was in charge and ours was to just follow the orders) may not be relevant in the new (entrepreneurial) economy, where no one is in charge and no is coming to the rescue either. And as such, we need to adapt our beliefs and assumptions to the new economy. What do i mean? We need to rewaken and embrace an entrepreneurial mindset as this is what is relevant to the new economy and shall enable us to see beyond our short comings. An entrepreneurial mindset shall awaken our creativity, build our courage and enable us to turn our innovativeness into sustainable successes.

    The other thing that we need to do as Africans to realize sustainable innovations is to start thinking and doing things beyond our self interest. Let us be more collaborative and embracing in our endeavors. We have the intellect. Let us also be more opportunistic thinkers and doers and do away with pessimistic thinking and trumpeting. Remember, we shall only go as far as we shall take ourselves.

    So, Africans can innovate. And you have proved so yourself Mr. Chisala with your Zambia online site to which I am a proud beneficiary with three email acounts.

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