Tough times in the employment market mean it’s essential to support innovation in the marketplace, writes Mercy Zulu, 25, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Lusaka in Zambia, who argues it’s not too late for Zambia to catch up.
Around March 2015, I walked passed a group of students engaged in a heated conversation involving the infamous jobless six and the general unemployment situation in Zambia. These were fairly harrowing times for Zambian millennials, who had never really experienced economic hardship of this magnitude in their adult lives. The most recent labour statistics indicate an unemployment rate of 13.3 per cent (2014), which increases to an alarming 24.6 per cent among the youth. It’s no wonder that these former students, clad in graduation gowns, took to the streets in protest against the lack of employment.
Conversely, another wind of a different kind was blowing through the country at the same time. It possibly provided one of the solutions to the unemployment crisis ravaging the hopes and dreams of this young populace. Nyamuka Zambia, a business plan competition was launched by the Private Enterprise Programme Zambia (PEPZ) in 2014 with the objective of strengthening the entrepreneurial landscape in the country. Zambia was finally joining the dinner party that other African countries had been frequenting for almost a decade. However, it still lagged behind on the major fundamentals of entrepreneurship, which is innovation.
According to J. Schumpeter, ‘invention’ is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process, while ‘innovation’ is the first attempt to carry it out. The innovator combines several capabilities and skills to transform the idea into an innovation, which creates new markets or transforms existing ones. Thus, an entrepreneur must be an innovator.
Innovation increases productivity, employment and accessibility within an economy and is therefore a critical component of economic development. For decades, Zambia knew the ‘what’- diversify its economy and industrialise – but neglected to prioritise innovation, which contributed extensively to the ‘how’ question.The country did not have an innovation policy until 1996, 32 years after independence. The policy’s main objective was to incorporate science and technology in development plans, omitting other very crucial aspects of innovation. It was only revised in 2009 to address these omissions. Further, World Bank statistics indicate that Zambia’s expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP in 2008 was just 0.28 per cent as opposed to 0.89 per cent in South Africa and 0.4 per cent in Kenya.
Additionally, statistics from WIPO show that in 2014 just 39 patent applications were filed, of which 14 were from residents of Zambia. In the same year, countries such as South Africa recorded 802 patent applications from residents out of a total of 7,552 while Kenya recorded 132 from residents out of a total of 207. These and many other statistics show that despite business activity in Zambia and relative to its counterparts, the country isn’t innovating. It can attribute much of its economic growth the past decade to an increase in the demand for copper.
Although the country has found its place at the dinner party, it seems to be wearing the wrong outfit. The paradigm is shifting. While in Zambia entrepreneurship is often flagged as an alternative to formal employment and incorrectly perceived as synonymous with business, other African countries are attracting foreign investment by embracing additional aspects. Entrepreneurs across the continent are creating innovative solutions to Africa’s development challenges while making tons of money. It’s no longer just a matter of ‘product’-it’s now ‘product with impact’. Products and services are being supplied for an emerging class of low and middle income consumers within the financial, energy, agriculture, education and health sectors. Some of these include mobile money services, renewables, housing solutions and agro-processing. Innovation has never looked more attractive. According to a 2016 GIIN report, out of an estimated USD 8 billion impact capital in-flows to Southern Africa, approximately 85 per cent was absorbed by South Africa while Zambia absorbed less than 12 per cent. Investment is beginning to play a different tune, and Zambian entrepreneurs must not delay joining the dance.
Just as necessity is the mother of invention, absence or lack is the mother of opportunity. Zambia can catch up and thrive if the main actors to this innovation story perform their roles successfully. Government must provide and effectively implement good policies that create an enabling environment for innovation and entrepreneurship, the private sector must cooperate and collaborate towards this goal. Finally, Zambians must keep those innovative ideas flowing and the determination to succeed burning. The investment capital is there – you just need to flap those butterfly wings.
About me: I’m a proud African who is an avid reader, writer and development fanatic pursuing a Masters in Economic Development. A lover of good food, good music, travel and adventure. I love to work in eclectic environments that encourage creativity and have written articles for local publications and the World Bank.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
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