Companies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), like companies everywhere, often benefit from innovation. Innovation is making or doing something new, and then trying to get money or a benefit out of the change. Some examples are shown in Table 1. They could also be considered as examples of entrepreneurship, the process of setting up a new business, which is closely linked to innovation.
Table 1. Examples of innovation
There have been many studies of things that increase a company’s innovation. Most of these apply just as much in the DRC as in other countries. For example, the textbook “Managing Innovation” (written by Tidd and Bessant) discusses seven features of a company which can increase innovation. They are listed in Table 2.
Table 2. Features of a company which can increase innovation
But what about things that influence innovation more in the DRC than in other countries? One way of finding them is to look at the special circumstances that apply there, and then see what things would be particularly influential in those circumstances. It’s an approach that I’ll use here. I’ll start by looking at influences linked to the special demand circumstances faced by Congolese innovators, before looking at influences linked to their special working circumstances.
Influences on Congolese innovation linked to special demand circumstances
Congolese innovators can aim to meet growing domestic demand. The DRC has a moderate to high growth rate in personal income by the standards of developed countries, and the population is growing quite quickly (link). As people become richer and the population larger, demand for different types of goods is likely to emerge fairly quickly. It’s important for a company to innovate fairly quickly as well, to meet the emerging demand. Some features of a company which can accelerate innovation are mentioned in Table 3. Additionally, a quick and readily available source of ideas is the goods sold in richer countries. If a company monitors goods sold in medium-income and rich countries, then it could copy or adapt them, saving some money on idea search and market analysis.
Table 3. Features of a company which can accelerate innovation
Congolese innovators can aim to adjust to disruption to demand in domestic markets. Markets in eastern parts of the DRC are vulnerable to disruption due to military activity. Demand for goods may rise or fall considerably at short notice, for example as physical markets are destroyed, or as refugees arrive. A company should be able to innovate quickly to meet this demand, and we have already discussed how some company features can accelerate innovation (the list is in Table 3). A second approach is to produce flexible innovations, which have many different uses, or which can be adapted to a different purpose without much difficulty. A third approach is to ensure flexibility in the innovation process, by selecting ideas, processes, and technologies that may be used to produce different innovations. A fourth approach is to make innovations and use processes which can be transferred easily into different markets. For example, if an innovation is produced mainly by human skills rather than heavy machines, it is easier to transfer into a different market.
Congolese innovators can aim to meet growing international demand for goods. Export opportunities are opening for DRC companies, as incomes rise around the world. There may be also less competition in the production of some goods, as production costs rise in industrialising countries. A company should be able to innovate to meet this international demand. What seems important here is being aware of international opportunities, and being able to take advantage of them. A company could monitor international marketplaces (for example through online retailers) for goods that it could produce at a competitive price. It could also maintain links with international companies known to sell or use their goods.
Congolese innovators can also aim to overcome geographic and military barriers which constrain demand. The transport links between different parts of the DRC are often limited, restricting access to markets by companies based outside those markets. The access problem is worsened by military action in the East, which can hamper free movement of goods and people there. A company should be able to produce innovations that can overcome these barriers. It could produce innovations whose production could transfer easily to the region where the demand is, which would require the company to establish relationships with manufacturers and retailers in those regions. Alternatively, it could produce more intangible innovations, such as computer programs or new types of services.
Influences on Congolese innovation linked to special working circumstances
Now I’ll look at influences on Congolese innovation that are linked to the special working circumstances in the country. To start, Congolese innovators can aim to adjust to disruption to their working environment. The innovative process may be disrupted by military activity, particularly in the east of the country. One way of handling the disruption is to innovate quickly, so there is less time for disruption to occur – we have already discussed how innovation may be accelerated by some company features (with the list in Table 3). Another way is to ensure that the innovation process requires few physical assets, and proceeds in clear, self-contained stages, so that the innovation process can be temporarily suspended or transferred somewhere else if disruption occurs.
Congolese innovators can also aim to overcome geographic barriers which hinder their innovation. Geographic barriers, whether due to restricted transport links or military action, can prevent the innovator getting information and ideas from outside of their region. They can also prevent them from using the best partners for developing the innovation. An approach to overcoming the geographic barriers is to make heavy use of online communications for meetings, networking, and the innovation process in general. Another approach is to maintain the largest possible network of information sources and potential innovation partners, so that any available information and opportunities can be used.
In summary, many of the things that can increase innovation in DRC companies are the same as in companies in other countries. However, some things have stronger effects in the DRC, or are mainly suitable there. Table 4 summarises the actions that a DRC company can take to increase innovation. They need to be supported by evidence from DRC companies before they can be considered recommendations, so at the moment they are just my first thoughts.
Table 4. Actions that a DRC company can take to increase innovation