Why open innovation is the economic driver South Africa needs

Why open innovation is the economic driver South Africa needs
Dr Kukuni

South Africa is a country brimming with ingenuity. Yet millions of high-potential innovations which could have a significant impact on employment, service delivery and socio-economic development remain sitting in garages without receiving the exposure they deserve.

This is precisely the reason that the country and government now need to turn attention to open innovation rather than just Request for Quotations (RFQs) or tenders as a mitigation tool or approach.

Unlike RFQs, open innovation does not only focus on the financial aspects of projects but also augments and stimulates a culture of innovation. This is through allowing entrepreneurs and small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) the opportunity to pitch new ideas and business solutions to clients with real world challenges.

One such example is The Innovation Hub’s Open Innovation Exchange Programme (OpenIX), which aims to collect revenue, expedite service delivery and augment commercialisation opportunities for SMMEs within the three focus areas in the context of The Innovation Hub Management Company, namely: Digital Economy, Bio-economy, and Green Economy.

The  OpenIX programme  further requires all participating SMMEs to go beyond the call of duty or simply meeting their contractual obligations, and prove beyond any reasonable doubt that their innovations are both commercially viable and essential.

This exceptionally structured programme is already producing positive results, gaining the support of government and industry giants such as Eskom, the Public Protector South Africa (PPSA), the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), the Gauteng Department of Economic Development (GDED), and the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman (CGSO).

Over the past few years, the programme has piloted solutions from mask detection within classrooms to an automated appointment solution as a measure to reduce Covid-19 transmission. Working in partnership with the GDED, and Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD), one participating SMME has even piloted a 15 kW/h solar energy supply innovation at an Eikenhof farm which has successfully generated a sustainable food supply while creating new jobs at both the farm and within the SMME`s company.

With local unemployment having reached a staggering 34.5% at the end of March this year, knowledge transfers, skills transfers, and innovation is more vital than ever. And it is against this background that the OpenIX programme represents a key solution for curbing poverty, unemployment, and skills shortages. Just imagine, for instance, the impact that 20 new innovations alone could have on the economy and the lives of young people around the country.

In the 2020/21 financial year alone, 12 companies piloted projects, with three companies’ innovative solutions outperforming expectations as follows:

  • Qualitone: Developed Public Protector South Africa`s client complaints and referral application for android users and is currently on the app store.
  • Pulego Technologies: Developed Consumers Goods and Services Ombuds (CGSO) complaints and enquiries mobile application which will be launched at the end of October 2022.
  • Sizophila Electrical and projects: The company provided 15kw/h energy supply at Eikenhof.

However, SMMEs are still being asked to bid for tenders after completing their pilot contracts despite delivering remarkable pilot project results. This stiffles the potential growth and scalability of their solutions, preventing them from realising their true potential.

To draw the maximum possible benefit from innovations and ensure the long-lasting impact of its investments, government now needs to make provision for the mandatory procurement of successful solutions. Likewise, businesses in the private sector should ensure that they sub-contract to SMMEs with proven track records, and effect skills and knowledge transfers where necessary.

Without these measures, the country’s unemployment rate will simply continue to rise, placing South Africa on a negative economic trajectory. By contrast, encouraging and supporting open innovation is crucial to a brighter future for all.