The Innovation/Permission Paradox

On a recent trip to Dar Es Salaam I got talking to an entrepreneur at one of those many technology pitching events popping up across the continent. After a few minutes of the usual small talk (which, of course, included a full review of the English Premiere League season ahead) I asked him what idea he and his team were working on.

He explained to me that he was the CEO of a Tanzanian start-up that had developed a new gamification technique which, integrated within a new mobile app they were building, helped tackle childhood obesity. “Is that a problem here in Tanzania?” I asked him. He told me that it wasn’t and that it didn’t matter because their app was aimed at the American market, where it was a growing problem. They were going to focus on the West Coast initially, where they hoped to get enough traction to attract investors and then scale it across the rest of the USA.

I asked if he had a medical background at all, and whether he’d been to the United States and seen the problem first hand. He answered no on both occasions. Again, he didn’t see this as a problem, nor that none of his team, or Tanzanian-dominated Board, had ever been to the USA either.

This all struck me as a rather odd, rather strange approach, and I couldn’t help but wonder why he was doing this. “People in the United States will think you’re mad”, I told him. He didn’t seem to mind and said they were going to do it anyway because they wanted to work on a big problem that was meaningful, somewhere far away, and that could scale.

They didn’t win, but were given credit for their ambition and for taking on such a big first world problem.

Now, let’s flip this story another way.

On a recent trip to Washington DC I attended a pitching event at one of the many start-up accelerators in the city. I ended up sitting next to an entrepreneur who told me he was building a mobile app to help African farmers get better access to market information, helping them produce better yields and get better prices for what they grew.


I asked him if he knew anything about farming in Africa, or agricultural markets, or if he’d ever been to the continent. “Not really”, he replied, “but plenty of other entrepreneurs I know have won pitching competitions in the past, regardless. So I think we’ll get by”. None of his Board, or Advisory Committee, had any experience either, “but they are successful US-based entrepreneurs and know technology inside-out so we’ve got some great people behind us, and they think we’ve got a great idea with great potential”, he added. They picked this problem because they wanted to help poor people in Africa.

They didn’t win, but secured three interviews with technology and innovation news sites, and have a follow-on meeting with an investor who was in the room and who thought their idea was great.

Why is it that the first idea comes across as crazy or odd, yet the second one doesn’t – despite them being the same thing? And perhaps more crucially, how did we ever get to the point where an American solving an African problem is par for the course, yet an African taking on an American problem isn’t? Or even an African solving an African problem?


Thanks to CARE colleague Mark Malhotra who inspired this blog post during a conversation earlier today in Dar Es Salaam.

5 thoughts on “The Innovation/Permission Paradox

  1. TMs ruge says:

    It’s called White Savior Complex, Not Black Savior Complex. Where in WSC, white privilege is endowed with unfettered right to save black and brown “savages” … also known as the gap year passport. It’s a unidirectional right, not applied in reverse.

  2. kiwanja says:

    I don’t disagree, Teddy. But when did it become ‘normal’ for us to think in these terms even in the more recent, emerging ‘tech-for-development’ world? Or is that just picking up cues from wider development over the decades? It makes no sense either way, yet has become a ‘norm’.

  3. Ory Okolloh says:

    Ken, look within your own peer group…how many have started projects in the UK or US addressing all the challenges there 🙂

  4. kiwanja says:

    @Ory – Agreed. I think cases going back a few years are slightly different to what the approach should be today. Back in 2005 (and when many of my peers were also active) I developed FrontlineSMS because there was little chance of it happening in an innovation hub somewhere. If I had the idea today, I think I’d be hard to justify why I’d develop it over someone in the CCHub or iHub or mLab or wherever. So, while things have moved on in capacity terms across Africa more broadly, it seems much of the ‘ICT4D’ sector hasn’t. And that’s my biggest concern/frustration these days,

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