Innovation as a process: the example of traffic robots in Kinshasa
The act of innovation is often described as a process [1, 2, 3, 4]. The process consists of a succession of activities which starts with someone looking for an opportunity for a valuable new product or action, and ends with people getting the new product or doing the new action. Table 1 presents innovation as a process, with activities put into four stages that follow each other.
Table 1: Innovation as a process
- Stage 1: Find an opportunity for a new product or action, and find ideas that may help to respond to the opportunity
- Stage 2: Assess the opportunity and ideas to see whether they are valuable and whether the ideas can be developed
- Stage 3: Develop the best ideas
- Stage 4: Benefit from the product or action developed from the ideas
It is sensible to describe innovation as a process for a number of reasons. Firstly, the act of innovation consists of activities that follow in a natural sequence. For example, ideas have to precede their development into a product, and the development of a product has to precede its launch in a market. Secondly, the activities that make up innovation require different skills and equipment, so it is sensible to consider them separately. An example here is that advertising is used in the final stages of innovation when a product is sold, but is not used in the earlier stages when a product is designed. Thirdly, the process separates activities into different stages, and managers can examine performance at the end of each stage before deciding whether to continue with the innovation. An example here is that after assessing the value of an idea, a manager can decide whether to develop the idea into a product.
Most innovation can be considered as a process, whether it is done by a very large company or a single individual. For example, a person who works alone offering flexible services to tourists is often highly innovative. They adapt their services to the requirements of the tourists, and may offer sightseeing, travel advice, or translation. The person’s innovation may be described as a process using the stages in table 1. They find a tourist who may present an opportunity for work, and find whether the tourist would like any services, such as sightseeing. If the tourist makes any requests, the person assesses whether they can provide the service. They then develop a plan for satisfying the request, such as visiting major monuments, and propose it to the tourist. If the tourist likes the plan and the price of the service, the tourist will purchase the service, and the person benefits from the payment.
Traffic robots in Kinshasa
The process can be illustrated more clearly by a specific example of innovation: the introduction of traffic robots in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.) [5, 6, 7]. The traffic robots are machines for controlling and monitoring traffic, and have a distinctive human shape. They were introduced in 2013 . They were designed by a team led by the entrepreneur and industrial engineer Thérèse Kirongozi .
The problem that Kirongozi’s team solved was easy to find. Kinshasa is a mega-city with a population exceeding ten million people, where traffic security is a public health hazard according to Kirongozi . She wanted to create something that allowed better control of the chaotic traffic and that provided assistance to traffic police .
Having identified Kinshasa’s traffic security as an important problem, Kirongozi tried to find ideas that could be developed into a solution. The “Women’s Technology” association, of which Kirongozi is the president, discussed the issue . They organised a trade fair for Congolese inventors, who could propose ideas for addressing the Kinshasa traffic problem .
The trade fair gave Kirongozi the chance to assess the proposed ideas. She liked one idea that proposed a robot with moving arms, which was demonstrated by a working model . She also liked another idea that showed a model vehicle . These two ideas were selected for further development.
It wasn’t certain that the ideas could be turned into a product that helps to solve the traffic security problem. However, the models presented at the trade fair allowed Kirongozi to assess some of the mechanics and appearance of possible products . Additionally, her skills as an engineer and entrepreneur reduced the risk of bad management . It was also not certain that the Kinshasa authorities would want to buy the final product. However, the benefits from improved traffic security were clear, and a robot product would be original and may be able to capture the whole Congolese market for automated traffic control [18, 19].
To develop the ideas, Kirongozi set up a laboratory [20, 21] without government funds or orders . She hired a team of four engineers, including the engineer who proposed the original robot idea . They combined the model robot and the model vehicle that Kirongozi had seen at the trade fair, and built prototypes from them .
Two prototypes were provided free on two crossroads in the city, and the city authorities provided feedback to the development team on how to improve the robot . After further development [26, 27], the team produced a commercial product that met specifications for traffic control, user-friendliness, and robustness. Some features of the early versions of the robots are shown in table 2; the robots may also be customised to meet specific demands and are subject to ongoing development .
Table 2: Features of the early versions of the traffic robots
- Contains four traffic lights for vehicles and pedestrians
- Rotates to regulate traffic from different directions 
Monitoring of traffic and compliance with regulation
- Stores or transmits live video to police [30, 31]
- Powered entirely by solar energy 
- Issues visual and verbal instructions, and plays music 
- Monitors traffic using cameras to determine when it is safe for pedestrians to cross 
- Has an aluminium cover to withstand tropical conditions 
- Has a human shape that is close to science-fiction robots
The traffic robots initially did not financially benefit Kirongozi. She offered them for sale to the Kinshasa authorities, but the authorities were reluctant to purchase . She gave the authorities two prototypes for free, and motorists praised the prototypes [37, 38]. She adapted the prototypes to meet the authorities’ requirements, and pushed for new contracts in Kinshasa, elsewhere in the D.R.C., and internationally [39, 40, 41].
Kirongozi’s persistence brought benefits after a time. The Kinshasa authorities purchased three traffic robots in 2014-2015 at a price of around US$27,500 (24,000 Euros or 44,000,000 D.R.C. Francs at the exchange rate of 1 March 2019) , and subsequently purchased more . Others have been installed in major cities across the country [44, 45, 46, 47] with various designs [48, 49].
The traffic robots have brought non-financial benefits too. The number of traffic accidents has reportedly fallen in the areas of Kinshasa where the robots were installed . Ten skilled permanent jobs and several trainee jobs in robot assembly have been created in Kinshasa . Kirongozi has shared her business experiences in many press interviews, and won business prizes [52, 53].
Kirongozi continues to innovate the traffic robots. They have improved technically [54, 55] and new designs have been introduced [56, 57]. Robot prices in 2018 were as low as US$10,000 (9,000 Euros or 16,000,000 D.R.C. Francs at the exchange rate of 1 March 2019) . Kirongozi is also looking to use her team’s skills in robotics in other sectors, such as the military, toxic waste handling, and road cleaning .
The Youtube videos, as well as links  and , are in French. All links are active.
At the end of December a presidential election was held in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.), which will bring President Joseph Kabila’s period in office to a close (link). It’s a good time to consider in what state he leaves the D.R.C. As it turns out, despite much criticism of his government, some aspects of the D.R.C.’s economy and social outcomes are quite strong compared to other countries with a similar income per person. However, if the presidential election is perceived as unfair and people contest the results, both the economy and social services could be severely damaged.
The D.R.C. is one of the poorest countries in the world, measured by how much an average person can buy (measured in GDP per person in purchasing power parity (PPP)). But it has been growing quite strongly in recent years, with an average annual growth rate of 2.7 percent from 2013 to 2017. Indeed, before the political crisis of 2016-2017, only twenty countries grew more quickly. 
Figure 1 shows growth rate plotted against GDP per person, for countries with income less than 10,000 U.S. dollars per person in PPP. The black cross marks the D.R.C., with low income but quite high growth. The fitted curve (based on a quadratic function and the country data) shows the expected growth rate at each value of GDP per person. Countries below the curve have a lower than expected growth rate at their value of GDP per person, and countries above the curve have higher than expected growth rates. The D.R.C. growth rate is higher than expected.
Figure 1. Growth rate plotted against GDP per person for countries with income below US$10,000 (PPP)
Notes: The D.R.C. is marked with an X. Growth rates are averages from 2013 to 2017 inclusive. Growth rates and GDPs per person are in PPP.
Inequality in the D.R.C. is above average by international standards. It is around the same rate (measured by the Gini index, and equal to 42) as the United States and China, but below the rates in most of its neighbouring countries . Figure 2 shows inequality plotted against GDP per person in PPP, for countries with income less than 10,000 U.S. dollars. The black cross marks the D.R.C. with an above average inequality rate. The fitted curve (from a quadratic function) shows the expected inequality at each value of GDP per person. Countries below the curve have lower than expected inequality at their value of GDP per person, while countries above the curve have higher than expected inequality. The D.R.C. inequality is higher than expected.
Figure 2. Inequality plotted against GDP per person for countries with income below US$10,000 (PPP)
Notes: The D.R.C. is marked with an X.
The literacy rate in the D.R.C. is 76 percent for adults, which is quite high for a country with low income per person. The youth (people aged 15 to 24) literacy rate is a better indicator of education during the period of the Kabila government. The youth literacy rate is 84 percent, which is higher than the rate in most neighbouring countries .
Figure 3 shows youth literacy plotted against GDP per person in PPP, for countries with income less than 10,000 U.S. dollars. The black cross marks the D.R.C., with high youth literacy for its income. The fitted curve (from a quadratic function) shows the expected youth literacy at each value of GDP per person. Countries below the curve have lower than expected youth literacy at their value of GDP per person, while countries above the curve have higher than expected youth literacy. The D.R.C. youth literacy is much higher than expected.
Figure 3. Youth literacy plotted against GDP per person for countries with income below US$10,000 (PPP)
Notes: The D.R.C. is marked with an X. Youths are defined as people aged 15 to 24.
Life expectancy in the D.R.C. is 59.6 years, which is close to the average for low income countries but much lower than high income countries. The life expectancy is also close to the average for its neighbouring countries . Figure 4 shows life expectancy plotted against GDP per person in PPP, for countries with income less than 10,000 U.S. dollars. The black cross marks the D.R.C. with a low life expectancy compared with most countries. The fitted curve (from a quadratic function) shows the expected life expectancy at each value of GDP per person. Countries below the curve have lower than expected life expectancy at their value of GDP per person, while countries above the curve have higher than expected life expectancy. The D.R.C. life expectancy is very slightly lower than expected.
Figure 4. Life expectancy plotted against GDP per person for countries with income below US$10,000 (PPP)
Notes: The D.R.C. is marked with an X.
The Kabila government relinquishes power with the D.R.C. performing well in some important economic and social measures compared with other low income countries. Economic growth and literacy are better than expected, while life expectancy is close to expectations. Inequality is above expectations, but below regional averages. It’s a base on which the new president can build, if they have the will and political skills to avoid conflict after disputed election results (link).
 The data here and in the figures is from the World Bank (link). The World Bank says its data is “compiled from officially recognized international sources”, but there are many ways that the data could be inaccurate (for example, in the D.R.C., it is difficult to observe people working and trading in isolated areas so it is difficult to estimate the size of the economy there). The data is uncertain, and the accuracy of my comments will be affected by the uncertainty.
 For comparison, a list of Gini coefficients is at link. The data is slightly different from ours.
There are many types of innovation. For example, innovation may be a new product for consumers, or it may be a new process that a company uses to produce its current products. It’s worth thinking about the different types of innovation, as the innovating company may have to develop them in different ways, and they may have different effects on the company or society when used.
This post will look at different innovation types, with examples from companies and people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018. Eight types of innovation will be discussed: product, process, position, paradigm, incremental (in contrast to radical), discontinuous, modular, and architectural. Table 1 presents the eight types and their definitions.
1. Product innovations… changes in the products provided by the company
2. Process innovations… changes in the processes used to produce a product
3. Position innovations… changes in the market position of a company
4. Paradigm innovations… changes in the way that the company thinks about its activities
5. Incremental innovations… innovations which are not very different from what they replace
(and radical innovations… innovations which are very different from what they replace)
6. Discontinuous innovations… innovations which cause substantial change in their industry’s operation
7. Modular innovations… changes in individual components that make up a product
8. Architectural innovations… changes in the links between the individual components that make up a product
Product innovations are changes in the products provided by the company. The product may be a physical good such as a computer, or a service such as medical care. An example of a product innovation is the introduction of a new energy drink by the brewing company Bralima (link).
Process innovations are changes in the processes used to produce a product. The new processes may be the result of new machinery being installed or the result of new techniques being followed. An example of process innovation is the introduction of two improved electricity generators in Kinshasa by the electricity supplier SNEL (link), which updates the machinery they use to produce electricity.
Position innovations are changes in the market position of a company. The market position includes the way the company presents itself to their consumers, and the identity of those consumers. An example of position innovation is the entry into the market for flights between Kinshasa and Johannesburg by the airline Congo Airways (link). As a result, the company started competing for customers flying between them.
Paradigm innovations are changes in the way that the company thinks about its activities. The change will often be in the type or nature of the product that the company provides. An example of paradigm innovation is the introduction of secure mobile banking by the bank UBA (link). The innovation is a change from banking services that are provided by a person in a physical location during certain hours, to banking services which are provided by a computer online at any time.
Incremental innovations are innovations which are not very different from what they replace. They contrast with radical innovations, which are very different from what they replace. An example of an incremental innovation is the introduction of a new television channel by the company Trace (link). It has new TV programs, but the basic technology and ideas are well-established. An example of a radical innovation is the introduction of a new maternity centre in Chiherano hospital in South Kivu province (link). It offers maternity services that are much better than were previously available in the region.
Discontinuous innovations are innovations which substantially change the way their industry operates. An example of discontinuous innovation is the development of renewable energy and low-carbon products by the DRC entrepreneur Gabriel Shabani (link). These products have the potential to replace products which mainly use hydrocarbon fuels, and which dominate many markets.
Modular innovations are changes in individual components that make up a product. An example of a modular innovation is the introduction of the CineBuzz cinema in Kinshasa by the entrepreneur Déo Kasongo (link). The cinema differs in its location and presentation from the Cinekin cinemas already present in Kinshasa (link), but the basic business operations are similar.
Architectural innovations are changes in the links between components that make up a product. An example of an architectural innovation is the introduction of “M-Pesa Solola na mur” by Vodacash (link). This innovation allows consumers with a bank account and a mobile phone to withdraw money from ATMs, without using a bank card. It brings together the three components (account, phone, and ATM) to create a new product.
Innovations can be more than one type. For example, we said that the new maternity centre in the Chiherano hospital (link) is an example of radical innovation. It could also be considered as product innovation (hospital maternity care is provided for the first time in the region), process innovation (the hospital has to set up the centre and prepare its operation), position innovation (the hospital will attract women who would have travelled elsewhere for maternity care), and possibly paradigm innovation (women no longer have to travel long distances, a month in advance of the birth, for care).
Innovations may also not be a clear type. For example, we said that mobile banking is a paradigm innovation, because it changes banking to an automated service accessible at any time. But it could be argued that it doesn’t really change the way people think about banking, and just gives them another means of accessing their bank services, so it isn’t really a paradigm innovation. What matters isn’t a perfect classification, but a reasonable classification that we can use to examine the innovations further.
Why do companies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) innovate*? Identifying, making, and selling a new good or service can take a lot of work, but many companies choose to do it. For example, after the launch in July 2018 of its new online banking service, the United Bank for Africa said that it is “committed to improvement in the quality of its customer service, by introducing products ever more innovative” (link; my translation from the French). Other goods and services introduced in recent months include energy drinks (link), cinema services (link), and maternity care (link).
Companies can have many reasons for innovation. Often, a company wants to change something in order to either increase profits or satisfy another organisational goal, and the innovation is a good way to do it. This post will consider some important reasons for innovation, and illustrate them with recent examples from the DRC. Table 1 lists the reasons that this post will examine.
Table 1. Reasons for innovation
Reason 1: To satisfy consumer demand
A company may innovate to satisfy consumer demand. The unmet demand may be recognised by potential consumers, and the company may decide to innovate after talking to them. Alternatively, the unmet demand may be unrecognised by potential consumers, and the company may innovate based on its own expectations of what consumers will want.
An example of innovation to satisfy consumer demand is the introduction by the company Transco of a new bus route in Kinshasa in July 2018 (link). The route connects two parts of the Congolese capital, Mokali and Zando, that were not previously linked by bus. The new route meets an unmet demand for bus transport, but also for transport more generally, as it “is one of the rare alternatives that Kinshasa residents have during a strike by other means of transport such as taxis, or during a shortage of fuel” (link).
Reason 2: To respond to competitors
A company may innovate to respond to competitor actions or to get an advantage over them. They may develop a good or service that is entirely new, and try to take the consumers of a competitor’s existing product. Alternatively, they may develop a good or service which is a copy of an existing product, but which the company hasn’t made before (so it is innovation for the company, but not the market). The company may be trying to capture consumers from a competitor, either as a new entrant to the market or in response to a competitor’s earlier innovation.
An example of innovation to respond to competitors is the introduction by the company Congo Airways of flights from Kinshasa to Johannesburg in South Africa in May 2018 (link). The Kinshasa to Johannesburg flight is not an innovation to the market, as South African Airways already provide direct services, and numerous airlines provide indirect services. However, the flight is an innovation for Congo Airways, which will hope to take customers from these competitors.
3. To reduce production costs
A company may innovate to reduce production costs. Often the innovation will be the introduction of a new process within the company, and the customer won’t see any difference in the good or service they buy. Sometimes, the good or service may change as well, for example if a service is automated so that workers are replaced by machines.
An example of innovation to reduce production costs is the introduction by the United Bank of Africa of automated online banking in July 2018 (link). The automated banking, aided by artificial intelligence, allows the bank to serve customers with far fewer staff members, saving money on staff. Another aspect of the innovation is that the bank can provide services outside of usual working hours.
4. To respond to government legislation
A company may innovate in response to government legislation. Legislation may ban a certain product, or raise the cost of manufacturing it, and the innovation will develop a replacement product. Alternatively, legislation may prevent an item or person being employed in the manufacturing process, and innovation will develop a new way of manufacturing that doesn’t use them.
An example of innovation in response to government legislation is the introduction by Kinshasa supermarkets of biodegradable wrapping by August 2018 (link). DRC government legislation banned the use of plastic wrappings and bags from July 2018, and some supermarkets in Kinshasa responded by introducing packages made of cardboard or tissue. The legislation also increases demand and profits from direct sale of bags (link), creating incentives for innovative responses among those sellers as well.
5. To respond to the emergence of new technology
A company may innovate in response to the emergence of a new technology. The emergence of a new technology is only part of the innovation process, and the company would still have a lot of work to do to complete the process. For example, the technology would have to be included in a good or service, which would have to made attractive to consumers, and then sold.
An example of innovation in response to the emergence of a new technology is the introduction of 4G mobile phone services by Vodacom Congo from 2018 (link). The 4G network technology had emerged internationally and in the DRC, allowing faster and larger data transfer across it. Vodacom Congo introduced a network based on the technology in the DRC, and goods and services such as software and SIM cards which allowed the technology to be used by personal users. It also marketed the goods and services.
6. To respond to conditions within the company
A company may innovate in response to conditions within the company. One example is that the company may have an owner or manager who is very enthusiastic about innovation, and the company innovates to satisfy them. Alternatively, a company may require a more skilled workforce, and innovates by developing a training program for them.
An example of innovation in response to conditions within the company is the development of electric cars and trains in Angola by the entrepreneur Gabriel Shabani (link). Shabani was an important influence on the innovation. He couldn’t reach agreement with the DRC government over his initial plan for the innovation, but he persisted. After approaching and reaching agreement with the Angolan government, the innovation proceeded.
7. To perform a public service
A company may innovate to perform a public service. The company’s owners or employees may want to benefit other people without selling them anything, and may want use the company to do so. The public service may also have benefits for the company, such as improving its public image or creating future demand for their products. The innovation may be developed in a similar way to commercial innovations, by identifying good ideas, converting them into usable goods or services, before passing the goods and services to the recipients.
An example of innovation to perform a public service is the introduction of a course to teach school students about personal finance, which was done by BCDC bank in 2018 (link). The innovation helps students understand and manage an important influence on their life. It also improves the company’s public image, and may encourage the students to bank with BCDC in future.
In summary, there are many reasons why Congolese companies innovate. Some of them are discussed here: to meet consumer demand, to respond to competitors, to reduce production costs, to respond to government legislation, to respond to the emergence of new technology, to respond to conditions within the company, and to perform a public service. The many reasons, and the many accompanying examples, suggest that understanding innovation more fully would help businesspeople develop their companies.
* Innovation is the development of an idea into a new practical use. It includes the identification of an idea that may be useful, its conversion into a usable form, and supporting work such as design or sales that help to apply the idea. The conversion of the idea into a useful form is usually called invention. However, many studies of innovation focus on how to identify ideas and how to do the supporting work. These parts of the innovation process are quite similar to other managerial work.
Similar definitions of innovation are used in well-known textbooks on the subject. In the textbook Dodgson, Gann, Salter, “Management of Technological Innovation”, innovation is “the successful commercial exploitation of new ideas”. In the textbook Schilling, “Strategic Management of Technological Innovation”, technological innovation is “the act of introducing a new device, method, or material for application to commercial or practical objectives”. In the textbook Tidd, Bessant, “Managing Innovation”, innovation is “the process of growing [good ideas] into practical use”.
The challenges facing entrepreneurs in Central Africa were vividly described in a recent article in the newspaper Iwacu (here). Although the businesspeople interviewed are Burundian, similar problems occur across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The challenges described are the lack of customers, the lack of public support for new entrepreneurs, the number of documents required to bid for public contracts, and above all, the lack of finance. Here are the words from one of the entrepreneurs interviewed:
“Founded two years ago, Edaco, a company specialising in architecture and construction, is nearly “fictitious”. It doesn’t have a physical address… It hasn’t hired anybody.
Prechore Nsabiyaremye, general manager of this business,… has been disillusioned. “I had created this business to compete for government contracts.” It’s an objective that he still hasn’t reached. His company can’t bid for government contracts as a business. It doesn’t have sufficient financial guarantees and experience. Where the trouble comes from, he says regretfully, is that no financial institution will agree to grant credits to new companies without a mortgage. Since 2016, he has won no contract.”
Source: http://www.iwacu-burundi.org/des-entreprises-et-emplois-fictifs, with my translation from the French.
Potential investors can have a number of concerns that make them reluctant to invest in an entrepreneur’s project . One concern is that the investment returns are likely to be highly uncertain, so that it is difficult to value the investment. Another concern is that the investors probably know less than the entrepreneur about the planned project, so that the entrepreneur could secretly act against the investors’ interests. Concerns about limited project information and anti-investor activity may be particularly acute in the DRC, where it is often difficult to collect information about companies or entrepreneur behaviour. It will also often be difficult for investors to ensure in law that entrepreneurs don’t act against the investors’ interests, due to difficulty in legal access and enforcement.
Potential investors are more likely to provide finance if their concerns are calmed. The entrepreneur can help to calm their concerns by doing a number of things. The entrepreneur can start by giving more project information to the investors. The information could be a business plan or detailed financial and organisational information. Such information could be released initially, or during the life of the project perhaps with extra investment being released if the information is good. The entrepreneur could also give evidence of their past successes or their skills for running the business, as well as of the skills and suitability of other people and organisations connected with the business. Additionally, the entrepreneur could look for finance from investors with whom they have worked in the past, or with whom they have social ties, since such investors are likely to know more about the entrepreneur, and their abilities and ideas.
A problem with disclosing information about the project is that the investors could use the information to undertake the project without the entrepreneur. However, if the project is small, has low or moderate profitability, or is difficult to implement, then the chance of the investors acting alone is reduced as the incentive for them to undertake the project is reduced. The entrepreneur could also avoid disclosing detailed information on how to run the project, at least before its start.
The entrepreneur could also give potential investors more control over the use of their funds, if they choose to finance the project. If the investors have more control, the entrepreneur cannot easily act against their interests. The entrepreneur could invite the investors to participate in the management of the project, perhaps as non-executive directors. Investors will probably only be interested in participation if the project is quite large. The entrepreneur could also give investors control over some business activities, such as asset sales, which could make the entrepreneur richer at the expense of the investors. Additionally, the entrepreneur could agree not to do certain things, such as selling assets or expanding the business rapidly.
There are some problems with transferring control to investors. One problem is that it can leave the entrepreneur with a reduced role in the business, even though they are likely to be its most knowledgeable and committed supporter. Another problem is that it can be difficult or expensive to enforce legally the transfer of control, particularly in the DRC where the government has limited jurisdiction over part of the country. An entrepreneur’s reputation and experience is likely to be important for showing investors that the entrepreneur can be trusted to do what they say.
The entrepreneur could also help to calm investors’ concerns by reducing the investors’ exposure to risk. If investors are less exposed to risk, then concerns about limited project information and anti-investor activity may be less important to them when deciding whether to finance the project. The entrepreneur could offer the investors some protections against risk. One type of protection is guaranteed repayment of funds before other creditors are paid, if the business closes. Another type of protection is transfer of ownership to the investors if performance targets are not met. A further type of protection is repayment of funds with a fixed additional amount after a certain time period – in other words, funding through debt, rather than through equity or something else that pays an amount linked to profit.
There are problems with reducing investor risk, both for the entrepreneur and investors. One problem is that if investors are given extensive protections, then any uses of their funds which threaten the protections become unsuitable, so the funds can’t be used for many business purposes. A second problem is that it is impossible to anticipate all potential threats to investors’ funds, so that the investors will always be exposed to some risk even if they are offered protections. A third problem is that it may be difficult to enforce in law any protections promised or written in a contract. A fourth problem is that if debt funding is used, then the investors may still be exposed to risk. The entrepreneur will receive any profit or loss from the business after debt repayment. If the entrepreneur’s potential loss is limited (for example, if their business has limited liability), then they may choose riskier business strategies that increase the expected profit or loss, but decrease the chance of repaying their debt. The risk faced by the investors would have a different form, but would still be there.
Table 1 summarises actions that an entrepreneur can take to increase their chances of getting finance, organised by their aim. An entrepreneur who takes these actions is not certain to get funds, but it’s more likely.
Table 1: Actions that an entrepreneur can take to increase their chances of getting finance
Aim: Reduce investor uncertainty
1. Give information about the project to the investors, either initially or during the project life
2. Give information about the entrepreneur’s skills or experience in running a business
3. Work with investors who have worked with the entrepreneur in the past
4. Work with investors who are socially connected to the entrepreneur
Aim: Reduce investor concerns about acting against their interests
1. Invite the investors to participate in project management
2. Give the investors control over specific business activities which could be against investor interests
3. Agree not to do specific business activities against investor interests
Aim: Reduce investor exposure to risk
1. Guarantee that the investors will be repaid before other creditors, if the business closes
2. Guarantee to transfer the business to the investors if performance targets are not met
3. Ask for debt funding, rather than equity funding (this action changes the form of investor risk, rather than removes it)
. The analysis here follows the book Shane, 2003, “A General Theory of Entrepreneurship”, chapter “Resource Acquisition”.
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
A business forum, the Katanga Business Meeting, was held last month in the city of Lubumbashi, in Haut-Katanga province, South Eastern D.R.C (link). The aim was to allow businesses to meet and form commercial links with each other. 130 companies attended, from sectors including agriculture, services, mining, and energy.
Such forums are a good idea. They can help companies to identify and assess the feasibility of business opportunities. They can help companies to access resources required to realise those opportunities, and to find potential partners, suppliers, and customers. They can help companies to assess demand and potential competitors, and to decide on the best strategy to enter a market. They can help companies to find goods and services that make their operations perform better.
Given all these potential advantages, how can an organiser prepare a forum to achieve them? A forum is more likely to bring advantages if it engages a large number of companies, and facilitates communication and opportunity identification between them. So an organiser would want to make detailed preparations that promote engagement and communication . Here’s what I’d do.
The first thing I’d do is contact as wide a cross-section of companies as possible and let them know about the forum. If more companies are involved, the forum’s impact is likely to be bigger. So I would use telephone directories, tax records, business organisations, business networks, and expert knowledge to identify and contact companies. Advertising in business publications would be useful. I’d also advertise in more general newspapers, both to contact those companies not reached by business publications, and to attract potential businesspeople who have not yet established a company – a nominal entry fee may ensure that forum participants are committed to business. A well-publicised forum website would also be useful, giving information about the forum. I would also encourage involvement by stating that the forum has support from prominent business associations, government, and international organisations. Stating that many other companies will be attending can influence companies to attend themselves. I’d also look at whether broadcasts or internet conferencing could be used to link to companies whose representatives cannot attend in person.
The next thing I’d do is hire people who are familiar with the companies and their business, or who can learn about them. Such people can act as “brokers” or “go-betweens”, connecting companies who may not be aware of each other. Their knowledge can be used to arrange group or bilateral meetings between companies with common features, or to provide information to participating companies, or to arrange communications whether in print or on the internet. The brokers may also be able to resolve any difficulties between companies, if the brokers have negotiating skills or can acquire them.
The third thing I’d do is explain before the forum what companies can do when they arrive. Letting companies know in advance allows them to prepare, and makes the interactions at the forum more effective. So I’d tell companies that they will meet other firms from their own and other industries, and that they can swap product samples, leaflets, and business cards. I’d also tell them that they can exhibit and present publicly.
The fourth thing I’d do is arrange the seating, spaces, and timetable in the forum so that company representatives can meet and move on quickly. The more meetings a company has during the forum, the more likely it is to identify business opportunities, partners, or suppliers. Company tables and stalls could be positioned close to each other, perhaps side-by-side so that representatives can move from company to company with few omissions. I’d suggest that initial meetings would be limited to a few minutes, with opportunities for further discussion in subsequent open meetings or at lunch. Sessions could be held for companies from different regions and industries, and on different topics of business interest. These sessions would increase the range of company interaction.
The next thing I’d do is distribute information about the region, industry, industrial specialisation, and product range of each company, together with contact information. A company will often be interested in opportunities where it can use its existing knowledge and skills, and such opportunities may arise from observing and cooperating with firms with which it shares some features. Recognising local suppliers and clients may allow companies to reduce costs, as business with local partners will have lower transport expenses, which can lead to large savings in a region where transportation is difficult. Indeed, without finding a local supply chain, a business may never get going. Additionally, if companies are aware of other firms with shared features, they can form lobby groups to protect their interests.
The sixth thing I’d do is encourage companies to talk about their work. Discussion of work can stimulate ideas and collaboration. I’d ask companies to give public presentations for five minutes about their products, organisation, and goals. Companies could provide samples of their work, and describe how they can assist other firms. Companies could also describe any problems that they have, so that potential partners or contractors can work to solve them. Open meetings could discuss topics of interest to some or most businesses, including electricity supply, regulation, taxation, and technology.
The seventh thing I’d do is promote contacts between companies after the forum ends. Companies could be encouraged to exchange business cards during the forum, and enter their names in a database available to other firms. Some of the forum employees who know about the companies and their business could continue to work temporarily after the forum ends, connecting companies who want to find partners, suppliers, or clients. The employees could also collate and summarise information given during the forum, which could help companies cooperate in future, and which could be a commercial product in itself.
1. Some academic studies have looked at preparations used in other forums and similar networks, including (in English)
Jack et al. (2013) An entrepreneurial network evolving (link)
Lockett et al. (2013) Motivations and challenges of network formation (link)
and (in French)
Chabaud et al. (2003) Les incubateurs d'entreprises innovantes (link)
There’s a new platform to promote investment in DR Congo from the United States, as well as import and export between the two countries. The platform is called Easy Commerce USA-RDC (website (still being built); facebook), and is run by the Association of D.R.C. Entrepreneurs, which has the objective of entrepreneurial promotion and development. One part of the platform is called Easy Profile, which was described by Ted Mvutu, the Association’s president, in a recent radio interview:
“We have planned the program called Easy Profile, which creates a virtual professional profile of a Congolese entrepreneur who is going to attract foreign investors who come to invest in the D.R.C.
“The investors who are coming to the D.R.C. have to find a platform of entrepreneurs organised so that they contact directly operators corresponding to their projects. In this profile, we put the identity, the sector of entrepreneurial activities, and we are going to connect these factors to the U.S. Department of Commerce to facilitate the task of American investors who want to come to the D.R.C.”
(Ted Mvutu. The text is my translation from the French)
A business directory of “Easy Profiles” could bring in two types of investors. One type of investor could bring foreign direct investment (where a business is established in the D.R.C. and (at least partially) owned and run by the U.S. company), while the other type of investors could bring finance investment (where a business run by Congolese entrepreneurs is financed by U.S. money). The encouragement of each type of investment would require a different emphasis on information provided by Easy Profile, and I hope that the Association specifies their own plans in more detail prior to starting the activities. As the President of the Association says that U.S. investors can contact local entrepreneurs, instead of being contacted, it seems more likely that they will be bringing foreign direct investment rather than finance investment.
Foreign direct investment could benefit from the Easy Profile business directory in at least two stages: the search for new business ideas, and the acquisition of resources to realise an idea. When considering whether to set up a new business, an entrepreneur will typically search for business opportunities from numerous sources, and show some flexibility in the opportunities that they will pursue. Under foreign direct investment, the flexibility will typically be reduced, as the investor will be likely to have clearly identified production aims coordinated with other companies owned by the investor. However, it is possible that local ideas and expertise may influence the details of the investment, for example if resources used in other countries are not readily available in the D.R.C., or if the best human resource management practices differ in the country. Within a directory format, it may be helpful to include a section where each company could write freely about anything it considers important. For example, it could describe the products it offers, or why it could offer something unusual, or any ideas it has for new products and services. It could also give opinions on current Congolese business conditions and markets. Easy Profile could translate into English.
The Easy Profile business directory could also benefit foreign direct investment by aiding the acquisition of resources to realise an idea. The D.R.C. is unfamiliar for most potential U.S. investors, and they will want to find local companies which help them to realise their aims, by providing relevant and suitable goods and services. Easy Profile could help them to find such partners, suppliers, and subcontractors. The presentation and ease of access would be important – I would copy the design of leading websites in the area, and allow data to be sorted, collected, and extracted easily. The website should be in English and French, so that it can be used by both U.S. and D.R.C. entrepreneurs.
To help investors to identify opportunities and D.R.C. companies, it would be helpful if the Easy Profiles contained the following information:
Further information would help to build the trust between investors and local companies. Trust can be a major issue in any business relationship, and during investment in a foreign country it is of particular importance. Helpful information may include:
There is speculation among the press and aid agencies that DR Congo may be close to returning to widespread conflict. I've written before that earlier war in the country was an economic disaster. To recap, a war can lead to incomes which are lower by around US$1000 per person per year than they would have been. Over ten years, that's $10,000. For a population of 80 million, that's $800 billion.
One of the reasons that war is economically disastrous is that business operations are badly hit. With a very few exceptions, such as arms smugglers, it is hard for business to prosper during war time. Of course, there are wider economic consequences to consumers and government, and effects in the long term through changes in labour, education, and investment, but let's stay on business for the moment.
War can affect business operations by interfering with a firm's ability to identify new opportunities. Familiarity with, and knowledge of, an environment is an important way for business people to find such opportunities. When an environment changes radically under war, then business people's ability to identify opportunities is diminished. Any search procedures to identify opportunities - for example, by touring local markets, or surveys - may become dangerous or impossible. Further, the number of opportunities is likely to fall as well, as markets are disrupted. While the changing environment due to conflict will bring some new opportunities, the disruption of markets established over a much longer period seems almost certain to lead to large net loss of opportunities.
Additionally, formerly attractive opportunities may not be worth the risk after conflict starts. Capital is likely to be in short supply during wartime, driving up its cost. Extra risk, such as that brought by war, is usually compensated by higher returns as well. If an opportunity's expected return is the same or lower when conflict starts as before, then it may no longer meet the required investor return, and so not happen.
Another reason for war's effect on business operations is that it interferes with the ability of businesses to plan. War brings increased uncertainty about the future - the actions of the combatants are unknown, and future events that were previously likely may be disrupted. A planner would have to guess about the future to a greater extent, and additionally have to include the actions of the combatants. The number of future events the planner would have to consider would be much wider, and costlier to examine in full if that is even possible.
The ability to find solutions to any opportunities is also hampered by conflict. Earlier ways of formulating ideas may no longer be readily possible or suitable. For example, a company which previously examined the practices of other companies may find that those practices are no longer as visible, or the practices are no longer applicable in the wartime economy. If solutions are proposed, then testing their viability may be difficult, with methods such as surveys or limited launches likely to be more expensive during war.
What's more, war can interfere with a company's ability to implement any proposed solutions. Finance may be not accessible even if required returns can be met, and the available workforce is likely to smaller. Fixed capital stock would be a target for looting. Networks of potential business collaborators may be reduced in size.
Overall, then: war is bad news for business operations.