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Why innovation comes from the private sector

· Social Impact Invest

Last year, I read a super interesting article about the Andela project. This American-Nigerian company, led by tech visionair Iyinoluwa 'E' Aboyeji, set out to train hundreds of African developers who could be recruted by American tech companies. Unfortunately it featured a few unhappy former Andela developers who were 'benched' due to a lack of projects for them to work on.

The article wasn't a positive one, but it's not clear to me if the things stated in it were true or not, and to what extent. One thing I can say is that 'E' and the Andela team have been able to build a very impressive company in a short period of time, with high profile investors such as Mark Zuckerberg and Serena Williams.

Probably the most interesting part of the article for me was the comment of a former and seemingly unhappy employee who questioned a part of the mission of the company:

“Is the venture capital business a sorry excuse for us saving or reinventing other institutions? Why is it the private sector that needs to come in and innovate? Why can't schools, governments, etc do that job?”

Many of us still look towards government and traditional institutions such as schools to lead and guide us in the process of building a better society. We don't seem to realise that the ones that who have been out there all along actually creating the world we live in today are builders, inventors and visionairs. People who, especially in the start of their journey, are unknown to everyone and who have no political affiliation or ambition whatsoever.

In some cases they might not even know or understand that what they're working on has the power to change the world forever, and maybe that's not what they set out to do. In their own little world, they see a problem, a challenge or an opportunity to just do what they love doing most: Innovate.

This article should not be interpreted as critisizm towards government or government officials, but rather as an explaination to why it's the private sector we need to look at if we wish to see change in our societes. When I look at Cabo Verde and the situation there, what I see is the amount of attention and time that is given to politicians on a daily basis while almost ignoring the efforts of a young and very dynamic new generation of founders and entrepreneurs.

Of course politics is a very important part of our country, and I am happy we have a stable political climate. However, I do feel the need to point out that when it comes to a lot of issues the role of a government is and should be that of an 'enabler'. The government's job is to provide infrastructure and create policy around stimulating conditions such as tax exemptions.

When it comes to infrastructure, our governments have done a very good job in connecting most of our country to the web. Also, the current tech ecosystem, which might not seem much to outsiders, has been a result of good and smart work by the government, and the projects they have implemented in recent years.

I also wrote about how government can't go around creating 'state-owned companies': Why we need to invest in tech & startups in Cape Verde

Although these are a few very positive developments, there are a couple of reasons why I think we can't rely and wait on government for innovation and sustainable change:

Short term focus

In the world of politics it's all about the next 4-5 years. Apart from the long-term plans created as part of different organisations, long-term thinking usually is not part of the political scene. In general, so definitely not Cape Verde in specific, a big problem we see in politics is that people don't seem to think about the consequences in the long term of the decisions they (have to) make.

Politicians may talk a lot about 'the future', but since actions speak louder than words, we can conclude that for them the future is almost always linked to the terms of their positions. We usually see people in power sacrifice long term stability in favour of short term popularity, leaving collegues to deal with the problems that they created with their decisions many years later. For me, the best example I've seen on this is the financial crisis in Greece.

Getting (re)elected

First off, from a politicians perspective, I understand the importance of winning an election. If you believe you're doing work that is advancing your country, being able to get another 4/5 years to continue with your mission is critical. But the amount of time spent on 'politics', both internal and external, gets in the way of the actual work that is needed to achieve big things.

Many of the best innovators spend years on trying to solve one problem at a time, with an incredible focus and determination. Mistakes are often fatal, as we see in general with new businesses, where 90% won't last for more than 5 years. In politics, it's all about the story. Even the most terrible election term can see a win by having a large campain budget and telling voters the right stories.

Traditional thinking

I believe both politicians and the public are wrong for thinking that politics is the only (or fastest) way of making a change. This was definitely true during the industrial age but in today's digital world this is no longer how things work. In politics, the job is mainly about policy and not the actual solution to problems.

Policy is there to enable solutions but it rarely is the (whole) solution to the problem. Systems normally don't change from within because of traditional thinking. For example, political parties in Cabo Verde promising 40.000 new jobs try do go about this the old way, through policy and (political) investor connections in more traditional markets.

Miami Mayor Frances Suarez is currently showing the world what can happen when a (local) politician uses out of the box thinking and opens up to the possibilities of the future and his changing role within that new reality. His efforts have resulted in many (blockchain) companies and investors leaving Silicon Valley and opening new offices in Miami.

Tech entrepreuneurs create things that require new policy and because of this a new way of thinking. In part, this is where a lot of progress happens.

The private sector

Another huge issue I see in politics is the fact that the wrong incentives are in place. Too little skin in the game and a lack of acountability attract the wrong types of people to important positions. Also, in a small island nation where youth unemployment can reach 25%, job security can be a very strong motivator. This means loss of talent for the private sector and meaningless public sector work instead.

The (tech) founders I've spoken to have a unique advantage. Most of them developed products during the solving of their own problems and therefore know who they were actually solving for. This does not always mean that the created product will be a hit, but it sure helps to know exactly who your customer is.

In the private sector there are shorter decision making cycles, especially in smaller companies and startups. This allows for a 'people before structure' approach where companies can move quick and can help to make sure that the right people are working on the right things at the right time.

The real job creators are the innovators in the private sector who risk all they have in order to achieve their dreams. They are relentless in chasing a vision of algorithmic agriculture, drones in the sky or digital health care. By looking way beyond what we have today, they open up new and lucrative markets which result in brand new opportunities on the job market.

It's time we all get involved in the solutions our young entrepreneurs are creating all around our country. Keep focusing on government to solve our problems will continue to dissapoint us. This legendary quote of American-Nigerian VC Maya Hogan-Famodu sums it all up for me: “In Nigeria we innovate to escape government.”

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