Creativity, innovation boom in crisis era


A crisis precipitates innovation. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The primary force for discovering new ideas, products and services is a problem or need.

It is perhaps what motivated early Greek philosophers to come up with the idiom “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced every human being to think of solutions to the problems the virus brings.

Several universities in Kenya rushed to produce a ventilator in response to a desperate need that the demand for ventilators could outstrip supply.

Like gallant soldiers, they sought to defend their country from the embarrassment of not making even a simple ventilator.

Others sought to develop an app for contact tracing. There are at least more than 100 new applications around healthcare.

At the street level, citizens have armed themselves with all manner of traditional healing products and solutions. There are those who believe that the Neem tree could be the magic medicine for warding off the virus.

Others ramped up their experience in building gaming solutions or ventured into e-learning to build a local platform.

A section of society is now arguing that the so-called innovators in Kenya are copycats. These in my view are voices of doom.

Rarely do people come up with new ideas. American author Mark Twain once wrote, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

Gumzo, a Nairobi-based video conferencing startup, has emerged to challenge global platforms such as Google Hangout and Zoom.

Covid-19 forced the founders to shift some of their attention from Usiku Games, a gaming company they had created to tackle the problem of youth gambling across Africa, to setting up a simpler conferencing platform that can address local problems.

They simply leveraged their in-game video conferencing platform to build a solution that could be used more widely to tackle the pandemic.

Unlike other platforms, Gumzo has no app to download, or extensions to configure. Their calls happen in the browser. This means that the calls will automatically work on any smartphone or PC, right away.

Once someone has a trusted account, they can join a meeting with a single click. The simplification makes it possible for students in far-flung rural areas to participate in learning away from school.

The solution is likely to bring greater inclusivity given the fact that studies have shown that when mobile became affordable to all citizens, it precipitated productivity improvement and in some cases created jobs.

This quick intervention will not just help students’ online learning, but will also revolutionise the micro, small and medium enterprises by providing a solution that validates what they are purchasing away from their place of work.

The founders of Gumzo realise the critical importance of their solution given the fact that Covid-19 has made it difficult for children to attend school. As a mitigation measure, teachers need a simple solution to perform their duties. That is perhaps the reason why they have allowed all public school teachers to use the platform for free to virtually teach their students for the remainder of the year.

Teachers could also use the same for family calls if need be. This gesture is partly to enable teachers to familiarise themselves with the technology as well as to challenge other organisations to donate cheap smart phones for students to access learning.

This donation of a simplified platform indeed validates my earlier point in this column that if we had the will, we can indeed enable every child to learn online.

Since we have no idea how long the virus shall be with us, there is a compelling case to develop new mitigation measures. The fall back may as well be continued online learning.

A crisis indeed precipitates innovation. We now have the opportunity to look into many other problems and come up with innovative ideas.

Many of the Newly Industrialized Economies of Asia grew on the backdrop of creatively utilising incremental innovation to a point where they have improved their capability to compete.

We need to emulate their development model if we ever hope to catch up.