Inclusive innovation way out of poverty

It is increasingly becoming clearer that poverty is caused not by inadequate resources but largely due to lack of knowledge. Evidence shows that poverty levels reduce when poor people gain access to knowledge.

New innovations around the mobile platform continue to crop up on a daily basis leading to improved productivity.

Until the advent of high speed broadband in Kenya, innovation was the preserve of research institutions. Change has come and the poor in slums are part of the innovation ecosystem. It is truly an era for inclusive innovation.

Innovations such as Map Kibera, a project funded by the Gates Foundation and executed by a team of young Kenyans working with two Americans, is creating new value to the people of Kibera in unprecedented ways. The mapping has led to new digital enterprises that never existed before.

Prior to the mapping, the entire Kibera was one block address which was difficult to navigate through. It was hard to find businesses or assets. This two-kilometre square piece of real estate houses more than 400,000 residents who hitherto have been discriminated against in the provision of county services.


Now, thanks to the Gates Foundation, we can locate any address in Kibera, thanks to the dedicated Americans and a team of passionate youth determined to turn a problem into an opportunity. Motorbikes mounted with global positioning system (GPS) gadgets now easily navigate the area to deliver goods to customers deep inside the sprawling shanty.

If Kibera gets free Wi-Fi as promised by President Uhuru Kenyatta, the place will become a hotbed of inclusive innovation. Already this is happening due to the area’s proximity to I-Hub, Africa’s premier incubation centre that was instrumental in the Map Kibera project.

We could create more digital trade in Kibra if the Communication Authority invokes its powers to compel Posta to collaborate with Kibera youth and take services closer to the people through its universal service obligation. Many of the youth can become delivery agents, using GPS to take mail and parcels to unreachable areas.

Majority of the mothers in slums are tied to their children and have no means of improving their livelihood without someone to take care of their children. This can change with free Wi-Fi that could bring educational content into their hands. This is a concept that has been proven by the Network for Non Formal Education in Kenya that is delivering content through tablets and digital television to many who cannot access education formally.

In some cases, most of these mothers need just a few lessons to understand how to leverage on technology and change their livelihood.

A number of research papers have argued that poverty is caused by disease, dishonesty (corruption), ignorance, apathy and dependency, but my experience on the ground tells me that while some of these observations may be true, others are extrapolated from different sets of populations. Take, for example, disease.

It is argued that besides causing discomfort and death, disease contributes to absenteeism and low productivity, leading to less wealth.

While this is true, it can be argued that if people have sufficient knowledge, they can ensure right to health care by demanding it through the legislature. These rights are abused because our representatives take advantage of our ignorance. Yet this ignorance is nothing more than lack of information or knowledge.

Apathy (when people do not care, or when they feel so powerless that they do not try to change things, to right a wrong, to fix a mistake, or to improve conditions), dependency (being on the receiving end of charity) and dishonesty (when resources that are intended to be used for community services or facilities, are diverted into the private pockets of someone in a position of power) indeed cause poverty but mostly in countries where knowledge is suppressed.

The whole purpose of education is to bring knowledge to as many people as possible and avoid being taken advantage of.

Inclusive innovations are revealing the core cause of poverty as markedly different from what scholars have assumed to be. Inclusive innovations such as M-Pesa, ICow, Mpharm, Sendy, Mathree, and Mimba Bora, among others, have brought greater social and economic value to the people.

More importantly, they have empowered the people to transcend that which we assumed to cause poverty. Poor people have benefited from these low-priced innovations and some, as I have argued in this column before, have moved out of poverty.

Adam Smith said, “The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations.” We need to aspire to do better as Kenyans and for sake of our families.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School