First, what is innovation? As an engineer, I will answer the question using an equation.
Innovation = Invention + Productization
You can replace that Productization with Commercialization or Implementation. Understand that an idea could simply be an invention, but until it has a market impact, it cannot be an innovation. Yes, without an economic value, you cannot have innovation! This economic value could be direct or indirect. Take for example, ancient Egyptians developed concepts in geometry to allocate land near River Nile. That idea was not directly commercialized, but it helped streamlined the process of land tenure system which consequently helped all the farmers. By mapping the land, minor overflowing of the Nile was not catastrophic as farmers could still locate their plots easily afterwards.
Information and communication technology is enabling a faster pace in the process of invention. With higher computing power, people could come up with great ideas faster and cheaper. And the process of transitioning from invention to innovation has never been better. With a global market accessible through the Internet, the world has evolved into a tight atomic economic unit. This interdependence brings a new understanding that nations cannot hide, and classical economic theory of comparative advantage makes lesser now. Comparative advantage was proposed in the era of manufacturing when availability of raw materials was critical to location and localization of industries. It was based on an old model of factors of production, which did not capture knowledge as we do today. Increasingly, nations like Japan and South Korea have shown that what matters is knowledge power in order to be vibrant and successful.
This brings up the African challenge. How will the continent survive under its present model of dependence on minerals when the world has since moved from that for creating wealth and prosperity? There are opportunities; we can innovate on the process of our mineral processing. This will involve using knowledge to differentiate our commodities. We get higher value in the international market. But if the continent continues to rely on this present model where it extracts and sells without adding value to the products, it will face economic consequences in few years. We have seen that information systems and Internet bridge national and international boundaries quicker and any major technical breakthrough could be felt in more ways across the globe faster.
Disruption will surely come. We have noted that some old traditional industries are going through some unfortunate metamorphosis. What is happening to newspapers as a result of the disruptive innovation by Google could happen to nations and continents. Just like the film photography is history due to digital cameras, cotton and rubber farming could also be. Why not? If a smart student in Johns Hopkins University figures out the best way to harness the powers of nanotechnology to create artificial cotton, those Sudanese cotton farmers will be out of work. It will be disruptive and consequential when new technologies in the lab right now hit the market in 10 years. There are inventions today and will become innovation soon. Africa could pay a severe price.
The continent needs leadership to help transition our industries and markets. Massive education is what we need right now to develop the capability to compete, become the sources of innovations ourselves, and provide safety nets in our economies. Few years ago, nations would have time to react to new innovations, but now, it comes so fast that without preparations it is possible to see foreign earrings dropped by 50%. I am so scared on the thought that petroleum will one day cease to be ‘economically useful’ because of alternative sources of energy being developed in the lab. If it happens suddenly, and without preparation from some OPEC members, many could default on their sovereign debts.