By Preetesh Sewraj, managing director of The Life Space

One of the most famous quotes from the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder was “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi”, which translates as “There is always something new coming out of Africa”.  This was an extremely positive view of Africa and the ability of the continent to amaze those outside its borders. In the modern era we have lost this positive global view with many seeing us as a continent of problems stretching from bad governance to failed organisations. There are many people working to change this view, but there is still a significant amount of work that needs to be done to turn Africa into a global beacon of innovation.

Preetesh Sewraj, managing director of The Life Space, discusses innovation in business.

The following few steps could help us in this journey:

1. Should we aim for invention or innovation?
There seems to be a great deal of confusion over the terms “invention” and “innovation”. Many individuals prize invention over innovation, especially when invention is linked to great names such as Thomas Edison, Nikolas Tesla and the Wright brothers.

In truth, innovation can be more powerful. A simple demonstration of this is the Wright brothers’ plane versus a space shuttle. The first plane was an invention, but without constant innovation we would never have become a species that has bridged into space.

Innovation builds on strong ideas and should be our goal in our journey to great products and services. Whenever we encounter a great idea, feel free to try and incorporate it into your business. “Stealing with pride” is the cornerstone of innovation (when done within a legal framework).

2. Mobilise every member of the organisation to innovate.
We live in a world where innovation is so important that organisations create custodians of innovation within their environments. A single individual, though, is unlikely to create breakthrough innovation, unless he is a remarkable individual such as Steve Jobs. Most organisations need to empower every individual to contribute to the innovation journey by understanding that they have the power to impact change.

Simple ways to achieve this include regular innovation brainstorming sessions, to consciously create an environment of innovation, and rewards for those who create new thinking in the organisation.

3. Utilise customers as assets in the innovation journey.
The consumers of our products and services are the ones who will ensure our continued growth. Many times our customers will share insight into why they use our business and what their pain-points are. This is exceptionally valuable in helping to understand firstly, how we can attract new customers and secondly, how we can further improve to keep the customers that we have.

Customers tend to give unprompted feedback, but we should aim to gain prompted feedback by asking probing questions. Those in the organisation who are client-facing need to develop a probing mentality to help customers share both negative and positive aspects of their experience with the organisation.

4. Cannibalise your best products.
Polaroid, Blackberry and Blockbuster are just a few of the famous examples of companies that could not innovate because they were so entrenched in their existing products. Regardless of how cutting-edge our products may seem, we should be aware that our competitors are making plans to steal customers away from our organisations.

Companies should aim to be not just better than the competition, but also to be better than themselves. Complacency, brought on by success, is dangerous and will result in a loss of customers as competitors match and then exceed our capabilities. Agile organisations need to be on a journey that looks to always better their offering.

5. Act.
The failure to act is a major factor that prevents organisations and individuals from achieving their full potential. Many companies in Africa need to act not just in their markets, but also outside their markets. The lack of African companies entering foreign markets is one of the reasons why there is no flow of high-value currency to further aid innovation. Taking the risk to act on an idea or opportunity will serve not just the organisation, but will also empower other companies to create a pathway to success.

The African innovation challenge is one that will be a constant challenge for generations to come, but work done today can create an environment where future generations will find it easier to innovate and compete on the global stage.