Frugal Innovation and Technology Networks with Africa

SONY DSCBy Ellen van Andel

Understanding Frugal Innovation in Africa: Schumpeter Revisited: Africa’s economy is growing rapidly, but transforming slowly. The perceived backwardness of Africa regarding technology may be challenged by studies from the informal sector because they suggest that innovation does exist.

Frugal innovation concerns value-sensitive design and marketing strategies that bring sophisticated products within the reach of relatively poorer consumers, through re-engineering and re-inventing high-value consumer products.

We propose a multidisciplinary approach for studying frugal innovation. Besides the technological component we also want to include for instance topics such as environmental and labour standards, local economic development, value-sensitive design, polycentric technology networks and business models.

When doing literature research on innovation you always find Schumpeter. He argues that innovation is a dominant force in economic transformation. In his early years he argued that entrepreneurs  have the innovation power, and later in life he argued that multinational enterprises (MNEs) have this power. Nowadays, we think that the innovation power can be ascribed to both entrepreneurs and MNEs.

In literature we find the assumption that frugal innovations are inherently inclusive. We do not want to directly assume that each frugal innovation is an inclusive innovation but we want to hypothesize it and test it.

Q: Can you please explain to me what is the key difference between appropriate technology and frugal innovation?

So far we find that appropriate technology is mainly driven by NGOs and that frugal innovations are mainly driven by the private industry. But we have to explore this further. We think the two concepts partly overlap.

Q: Your definition of frugal innovation is the adaption of high technology to meet the need of poorer consumers, is that correct?

We think the concept of frugal innovation is broader than that. For instance, the concept is more culturally loaded compared to what you just described.

Q: How does the concept of frugal innovation relates to sustainability?

We investigate whether or not frugal innovations contribute to sustainability, we think that environmental standards can play a role regarding this

Frugal Innovation for Inclusive Development: A Case Study on Power Tillers in Tanzania: This paper is focused on the technological design and institutional dynamics of power tillers in Tanzania. Research questions are, amongst others: ‘Are they innovative?’, and: ‘Can they lead to economic transformation?’. The outcomes of the investigation varied between districts. The variation is explained by the different background motives for adoption of the power tillers.

In Tanzania, the government provided agricultural workers with supply-driven power tillers from China and Japan. The tillers were very cheap but had high maintenance costs. There was no embedding of local knowledge, linkages between manufacturers and suppliers and buyers were very weak. As a consequence, the effectiveness of the power tillers was limited.

Adaptation of the design to local circumstances would imply that the features of the soils (e.g. hardness) were taken into account and therewith the productivity of the power tillers could improve. Now there was no significant improvement found in terms of productivity, however, there were  (unintended) effects for instance on the reduction of transport costs.

Q: Did you investigate female farmers, how they cope with machines? And is the main problem not phosphors in soil instead of the hardness? What explains the (non-)success factors, have you looked beyond tilling? For instance, sustainable agriculture does not adopt tilling because it damages the soil.

Regarding females, there are no generalisations possible. When looking at the household statistics, the tasks are equally distributed between the genders. The farmers hired as machine operators are not only women. Indeed, there are other limiting factors possible beyond technology and institutions. One of them is that there is a shortage of soil fertilizers. Probably there was a hidden assumption: rice culture- = rice culture. An unintended effect is that the power tiller is used as a motor vehicle and not where it was designed for.

Q: Is technological change in developing countries different from that in developed countries? Is stripping of the product necessary?

Chinese and Indian technology is on average of poor quality. But they do provide an entry into the market. Consumers aspire northern technology but they cannot afford it. Therefore, stripping and lowering the price is necessary. Yet Indian technology requires much more skills, due to poor product quality they break down very quickly.

Q: Is this case an example of frugal innovation?

This is a very good example of non-frugal innovation because of several reasons. One of them is the design was not value-sensitive.

The Frugal Thermometer for East Africa: A Mix of Medical, Technical and Human Centred Design Challenges: Who has a thermometer? What temperature indicates fever for you? The thermometer is a core metaphor for fever. We see this for instance when we type in ‘fever’ in Google Images. Most of the pictures show a thermometer. This embodies the Western assumption of what fever is. The thermometer is a highly culturally and historically embedded medical device.

What do you do if there is no thermometer? The problem is that the tactile measurements (hand on forehead) are very unreliable. Therefore we want to design a frugal thermometer, one that addresses both medical, technical and human concerns.

One of the challenges in the design process is to decide what the cut-off point is for measuring non-fever. Further, we found in our field research that the colours were similarly interpreted, i.e. red was evaluated as danger. The project is very interesting because it forces us to rethink the medical knowledge, and by doing this you may find that the evidence is not so clear.

C: I am very impressed that your aim is to fine-tune technology for local circumstances. I appreciate that you try to rule out the unexpected consequences of the technological innovation.

Q: Wouldn’t it be simply to have it an IPhone that can indicate fever?

The problem with this is that everybody wants to have an IPhone. Then we have a problem with the ownership issue, who is the owner of the device then? And in local circumstances, we observed that the people do not own that type of phone. Availability is also a problem here. We opted for a non-electronic device so that it would also work in post-conflict areas where there is no electricity.

Ellen van Andel is a trainee at the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa. Ellen holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology (obtained at Free University Amsterdam) and a master’s degree in health economics (obtained at Erasmus University Rotterdam).