There’s so much talk about how the government is not empowering youth, or giving them access to resources that would allow them to make a living for themselves. And at the same time, there is even more talk about how the government is not promoting an environment that is conducive to innovation. And all these are fair points, but in all honesty, I would never expect anyone that uses technology to only update their Facebook status, visit sites that sell Japanese used vehicles, or catch up on the latest national gossip to fully comprehend what it means to innovate in a technological sense, let alone know how it can be fostered.
Innovation is not something that simply comes into existence because the government allocated X amount in the budget, or passed a bill that has the word “innovation” in the heading, or even through some red-ribbon-cutting ceremony at some exotic location with ZICTA banners in the background. Nay, rather it is a mix of direction, passion, opportunity, execution and reflection, all working together into a sustainable process that evolves and adapts with time.
And this mix of qualities is best developed around education institutions and research organizations. Out of Harvard University came Facebook. Out of Stanford University came Google. Out of Houston University came WordPress. Out of a scientist working at CERN came the World Wide Web, out of DARPA, we got the Internet, and the list goes on.
On yet another level, businesses that would like to remain relevant in society position themselves to readily tap into the many ideas coming out of these education and research institutions. Everything from how they hire, to the products and campaigns they launch, border on “how can we give our users more value for their money while minimizing costs, and maximizing profits”. When you look at the Open Compute Project, you see how Facebook is trying to build servers that consume less energy, and reached out to the world for design collaborations.
In Zambia, it’s the other way round, it’s about “how can we maximize profits, while exploiting the workforce and capitalizing on the vaguely defined consumer rights” and thus, we hike prices disproportionately, cut down on labour, hire out of our social circles, micro-manage existing staff, buy into trends based on fads and opinions. When Joomla and Mambo were a thing, everyone was building sites on them. Today because having Cisco, Microsoft and Oracle in your network is cool, we all go with that. How can innovation exist in a society that refuses to objectively question why something works as it does? How can we innovate when we willingly accept the limitations of the technologies around us? How can we evolve as a society, when every opinion that is different is met cynicism and pessimistic reactions?
The government has given us a Youth Fund, and brought the CEEC into existence, well and good. But what’s the point parading resources that will end up going in the same saturated ideas; an internet café here, a business centre there operating out of Permanent House and charging K150 to photocopy? I personally don’t think these funds should be directed towards individuals that hire professional writers to draft business plans that end up failing, but rather to Universities, Research institutions, and technology Hubs like Bongo Hive that have the capacity to test the abilities of an individual to dream up great ideas that could change our society.
Secondly, universities and colleges curriculum around Information Technology is not only dated, but very theoretical. How does NIPA hope to usher in a new age of technological advancement with courses like the Certificate in Information Systems and Programming in 1 or 2 semesters? They neither have the computing resources to allow students to practice what they learn, but these courses also lack the robustness to keep up with the changing technology landscape in Zambia.
As a society, we need to change our definition of innovation. We need to move away from the petty arguments based on politics and personal preferences. Our government’s role is to ensure policies and laws are present to safeguard the innovators and not to meddle with actual innovation. Our universities need to stop teaching their students how to only get by, or how to become good employees and encourage them to question their realities, to have them identify how they could improve everything and not have an “it can’t happen” attitude. Until that happens, I’ll always see the conversation of “innovation in Zambia” as pointless rhetoric.