How innovation can transform our industrial landscape

By Seth Petrik !Nowaseb

Wherever there is a discussion about development, the concept of innovation pops up. Innovation is one of those hackneyed terms that are often used to explain development or the lack thereof in many settings. But do we really understand what is meant by innovation, particularly in the context of developing countries such as Namibia?
It may be good for us to define this term so that we can understand what we mean when we talk about innovation. So what is innovation? According to Meriam Webster’s dictionary, innovation is defined as the introduction of something new. In this context what is being introduced has to be something new. That is, an idea, a method or device referred to here has to be new. Another term used interchangeably with innovation is a novelty. These are concepts that are sought when we wish to patent something. However, the verb of the word innovation is to innovate. The same dictionary defines the word innovate are as follows: 1. to introduce as or as if new. 2. to effect a change in. That means innovation can refer to something new, but it can also denote a change being affectedas well. It is the latter definition that is more relevant in our context.

Unfortunately for many of us in the developing world, including Namibia, we only understand innovation as being novel, and not as change for the better. The latter, i.e. change for the better does not necessarily mean that what is better has to be new. It can just be different from how things are done and the results can be beneficial to those who start these processes. For instance, when companies set up their subsidiaries in different countries and start the process, or set up turn-key systems elsewhere, what is done is not necessarily new, but can be different, and yet can provide tangible benefits to the country.

Developing countries, particularly those in the third world, including Namibia, have spent the last couple of decades trying to emulate the UK, Germany, Japan, and others in trying to create innovations. But in the process, they forgot to do the simplest of things that give an advantage to their economies and improve the quality of life for their people. You see, many of the countries such as India, China, the Czech Republic, Cuba, and South Africa started to advance themselves by using a two-pronged approach. First, they tried to innovate new processes, concepts, and products. Second, they copied what they saw others do, to use in their in own setting and in so doing created industries that transformed their economies. Afterall, they say that copying is the best method of flattery.

Many in developing countries such as Namibia forget the second approach to innovation, that of copying. They somehow feel less if they copy what is being done elsewhere. In Namibia’s case, the best way to advance this country’s industrial base is to copy some processes.This will be particularly effective in areas of our natural strengths, i.e. solar industry, mineral processing, fisheries, and so on. Instead of copying, we currently use methods that do not benefit us as a whole in the long term. We buy ready-made goods and just install them here. We can learn how to make better roads, build better bridges, set up better agricultural processes. The wholesale importation does not provide jobs, it does not keep the money in the country. It enriches one or two people, and others elsewhere, buts it ends there.
If we want completetransformation in this country, we need to understand innovation and to innovate in the second less understood context. We can bring technology into the country, but we should not stop there. What is required for us to advance as a nation, is to learn how to copy the technologies we acquire from elsewhere. We will not be breaking any laws as most of the technologies we copy will be off-patent. For instance, if we want to build a solar plant somewhere in Namibia; first, we can buy solar panels from Germany, China, United States, or the UK. But we do not need to buy the brackets, stands, nuts, and bolts from them. Those are locally available. Second and more importantly, we have to learn how to get the solar photovoltaic cells and start making the panels here ourselves. This sounds very simple, but practical.

There are many examples of how different countries advanced themselves and improved the quality of life for their people through the second type of innovation which engender change in the way of doing things. We want to acquire technologies and learn to reproduce those technologies ourselves, locally. Cuba is a good example of a country that understood this concept. Due to cold war conflicts withthe United States, Cuba was excluded and suffered consequences of unfair blockade. However, Cuba used its engineering and other skills to reproduce car parts for its automotive industry. In so doing they provided jobs to engineers, auto mechanics, and many other service industries. Similarly, South Africa was cut off from the rest of the world during the apartheid years. They too started to develop a significant industrial base with help from few countries such as Israel, and today that they boast a significant industrial base that was developed through both forms of innovations, particularly through copying some technologies. Finally, the Japanese companies went to the United States to learn about how the Americans made their motorcycles and vehicles – from Harley Davidson and Ford Company – and then started manufacturing their motorcycle and automobiles. In time the Japanese even improved on the American motorcycle and cars, and this by first coping from the former.

The list of countries that brought in, copied, and improved their products by copying from the innovators are endless. We have recently proven that we can also follow that method of innovation, buy developing simple products for local use by reverse engineering and designing some products. Below are some of the products that the author was involved in producing. Figure 1. Shows solar hot water panels manufactured here in Windhoek. Fig 2. The Hand Sanitizer. These may be small and may even look simplistic, but if several more small companies can innovate solutions to address our local needs, it will transform this country as it did Cuba, Malaysia, Czech Republic, Japan, and Germany, because they all started this way. Just last week we developed a product feathered in fig 3. Our latest design is a School Backpack carrier. These simple products were all designed to solve local problems here in Namibia, and there is no reason why innovation cannot be used to solve many more of our problems like these locally and keep the money in Namibia, than buying the ready-made products from elsewhere and sending money abroad.

Various local products developed by the author:

Fig 1b. Hot Water Solar Panel Prototype – HairabTech

Fig 1b. HairabHot Water Solar Panel -Hairab Tech Design

Fig 2. Hand Sanitizer – Prototype UNAM

What we are saying is this. It is okay for our universities, factories, and institutions to chase novel innovations, and try to compete with their international peers. But it is not an all-or-nothing pursuit. They can also try to innovate simple solutions to our local problems. It’s no good for us as a nation, and our most skilled and educated expertsto spend most of their time trying to develop the most advanced algorithms for solving some fancy computer systems, and jet the same people cannot help us make our wheelbarrows, or find ways make cans for our fishing industry or make simple tetra boxes for our milk, juices or wines. We can develop our own cottage industry of wine from Ausenkehr for example. We make our cans. We can do both fancy innovative research and simple problem-solving at the same time, and in so doing provide jobs and good quality of life that comes with planned organic growth, not the artificial environment that is all too common here. Isn’t it strange that we carry the most expensive mobile phones, tabs, and computers, live in fancy houses made from imported materials, drive even the fanciest cars, including Ferraris and Bentleys, and yet as a country we cannot even make our own toilet pots, let alone, nails for our houses, or nuts or bolts? For how long are we going to be consumers, and dumping grounds for goods for elsewhere – who cannot do anything for ourselves?

The SMEs are the backbone of many of the world’s largest economies, including the likes of the UK, and yet here in Namibia, we are so obsessed with big projects, at a huge expense. When I was at our embassy in Washington D.C, some Canadian visitors told me how much time they waste trying to invest in Namibia, because we were not interested in small investments such as US$5-10 million from them. In the UK, I was told that Namibia is a country of crooked businessmen who are only chasing large investments, who do not understand the long-term benefits of starting small.
The question is: how are we going to use innovation to address our simple challenges to reap larger rewards. To achieve those end possibilities, Namibia must sit down as a whole – all seven parts/components of a country and nation – excluding no one, and work out a plan and strategy, just as Germany and Japan did afterthey were decimated during WWII. They lost the wars, but look at them today. We must learn to walk before we run, and alternative innovation is one way to do that.
Seth Petrik !Nowaseb is a lecturer and Head of the Department of Pharmaceutics at the School of Pharmacy, Hage Geingob Campus, University of Namibia. Apart from his work in pharmaceutics, he has interests in solving local problems in different sectors including; solar technology, water & sanitation, health care & hygienic products, and general product design and manufacture. He writes here in his personal capacity.