Sustainable Innovation: A Solution to Africa’s Poverty II

In our mind’s eye, the Africa we see, is that continent which has long empowered the global economy. Inversely, the real Africa today is largely engrossed with poverty, resulting from depleted natural resources as well as irresponsible business models and political systems that have inflicted economic woes on the continent. In our previous article, we demonstrated ‘How Africa Can Eliminate Poverty with Market-Creating Innovation’, but in this article, we consider another form of innovation that has its roots in sustainable development which can guide economic activities against inflicting more damages on the continent’s woes, and this concept is known as sustainable innovation.

Sustainable innovation lies at the heart of sustainability – a concept that integrates ethical, environmental, social, and economic concerns into a business or development strategy. In this case, it involves the creation of new market space, technologies, products and services, processes, as well as new business and organisational models that not only accelerate profits, but also improves the societal welfare and minimise environmental harms. It is not just about developing new concepts or the need to create superior competitiveness as with general innovation. Rather, sustainable innovation is about how economic development system can ultimately be designed to eliminate harmful environmental and social impacts.

One other outstanding feature of sustainable innovation is that it weighs the overall impact of the innovation unlike other types of innovations, such as disruptive innovation and creative destruction, which can replace old products with new ones without considering the socio-environmental implications such as job losses.

Why this is Important to Africa?

The needs of Africa’s rapidly rising population can be met with sustainable innovation. We must recall that the continent has been engulfed by poverty and hunger, but not as a result of deficiency in natural resources and arable land to grow foods, rather, in several cases it is either that the capacity of the environment has been compromised by poor support for the agricultural sector or that the people are yet to innovate towards finding solution to their problems. As we indicated in our previous article, Africa’s poverty rate is yet to spark creative thinking to either benefit maximally from available resources or finding solution to the problems at hand. For instance:

In Kenya, approximately 80 per cent of land is suitable for beekeeping. Yet, the potential of bee keeping and honey production has not been fully tapped in areas where the agro-ecological and climatic conditions as well as the land use patterns are near perfect. [But] with the diffusion of its model of sustainable community-based beekeeping [innovation], Honey Care Africa (HCA) has been able to provide solutions to overcome these impediments.

The environmental impact has been significant. Honey Care Africa established a practice called “Bees for Trees,” where communities and individuals working to promote agro-forestry and the conservation of forests are given hives as a direct and immediate economic incentive to encourage them to plant and protect trees. It also promotes the use and protection of local sub-species of bees.

[For socio-economic impacts, Honey Care Africa] purchases and markets 65-100 metric tons of honey annually from roughly 20,000 hives managed by rural communities in Kenya. It works with over 4,000 beekeepers, who earn on average US$1.76 per kilogramme of honey they produce. This initiative creates additional employment opportunities through contracts (bee suits & smoker manufacture) and upstream and downstream (timber & packaging materials) linkages.

Porter and Kramer, coined the term ‘Creating Shared Value’ to promote business innovation that satisfies the broad needs of various stakeholders. With that, they revealed that a new innovation purpose has emerged today, which reorients towards societal needs and “… is the central issue in economic prosperity”.

This requires that we must rethink how we conduct businesses to create shared value, and implement practices that preserve African natural resources and build their capacity to serve the needs of the continent. Business activities, such as mining and oil and gas sectors, with huge footprints that cause ecological hazards, depletes natural resources and compromise the capacity of African agriculture from meeting the needs of the people can be redesigned with sustainable innovation.

Interestingly, sustainable innovation is not about altruism and does not negate business success and the pace of economic development as often misunderstood. Instead, businesses with successful sustainable innovation are profitable because they integrate consideration of clean design and resource conservation throughout product life cycles and supply chains in ways that improve efficiency and brand reputation. For instance,

Performance + Innovation + Sustainability have become the new mantra for Nike’s future portfolio, seeing them add this latter pillar as a driver for new products. [Nike’s] Flyknit innovation manages to create cool, high-performance trainers that are lighter in weight, use less material, and integrate a novel manufacturing technique that dramatically cuts manufacturing waste [and cost].

Collaborating for Sustainable Innovation

For sustainable innovation to be realised in Africa, we must unlock greater collaborations between nations and institutions. In some instances one nation or organisation alone cannot succeed and must work with its peers because the challenges are bigger than what any single nation’s resources can achieve. An example is how industrial collaboration has facilitated the aviation industry in relation to noise reduction, fuel efficiency, and alternative fuels. Ecological hazards and waste streams formerly being generated at an unprecedented scale have been solved with industrial collaboration which has redesigned aviation commercial activities.

To drive Africa’s development towards reducing poverty with sustainable innovation, we must begin to look for insights from all the involved stakeholders and ensure collaboration among nations and other institutions.


  1. How Africa Can Eliminate Poverty with Market-Creating Innovation I
  2. Can Businesses Really Exist Without Causing Harm?
  3. Why Extractive-Based Nations Fail: Between Resource and Knowledge-Based Economies
  4. 2018: The Nigeria We Want
  5. Towards The Bleak Future of Crude Oil: What Nigeria Should Do Now
  6. Fiscal Sustainability: Between Nigeria’s Debt Plan and the 2018 Budget
  7. Mainstreaming Street Hawking in a Formal Economy: An Inclusive Approach to Development
  8. Nigeria’s Economic Growth in 2018 and the Hope of the ‘Common Man’.
  9. The Reality of Nigeria’s Recession Exit: Between GDP Growth and Sustainable Development
  10. Financial Inclusion: Are Nigerian Banks Getting it Right?
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  9. 3 Big Differences between Sustainable Innovation and Regular Innovation. Lavery Pennell, 20 Jul 2015