/ 22 April 2024

Breaking barriers: Inclusive innovation for a fairer future

Flooding In Ethembeni Informal Settlement
Flooding in Ethembeni informal settlement, Khayelitsha, on the Cape Flats. Photo: Brenton Geach/Gallo Images

The growing inequality in wealth distribution stands in stark contrast to the trend of declining absolute poverty. The gap between the world’s rich and poor has grown even wider since 2015, when the richest one percent owned more wealth than the rest of the population. The ever-increasing wealth disparity and its effect on the cycle of poverty are highlighted by the fact that almost 3.4 billion people today live on less than $5.5 a day.

To grasp the complexities of poverty, one must grasp the concept of the “poverty penalty”. The economically disadvantaged pay a higher price for essential products and services, often of lesser quality, compared with the more privileged parts of society. This dynamic manifests in several ways, including increased prices for subpar items (expired medicines or contaminated food) or the inaccessibility of necessities because of dependence on technology that low-income individuals cannot purchase (a Windows operating system is useless if you do not have a computer). Poor people also face catastrophic spending burdens; according to Oxfam, 100 million people fall into poverty every year because of medical bills.

Traditional innovation often relies heavily on large-scale investments in infrastructure and trained workers, two factors that are often lacking in economically depressed areas. Because multinationals often target affluent audiences with expensive products, these creative strategies frequently ignore the needs of people with low incomes.

Regardless of these obstacles, there has been a shift in the past few decades towards more egalitarian innovation approaches. Ideas like inclusive, grassroots and frugal innovation have emerged to ensure that those with the lowest incomes also benefit from technological progress. Such approaches are beneficial in places like South Africa, where severe economic and social problems are still prevalent.

Grassroots innovation, for instance, taps into people’s innate wisdom and creativity to provide individualised answers to local problems. This approach is powerful for fostering economic and social equality because it encourages local empowerment while challenging the hierarchical structure of traditional innovation. For example, the Honey Bee Network in India has revolutionised how indigenous inventions are gathered, shared and supported. The programme aims to help people reap the benefits of technological advancements by translating traditional knowledge into marketable ideas. 

Similarly, frugal innovation caters to the economic limits of low-income consumers by reducing items to their essential characteristics, eliminating unnecessary costs, and focusing on core functionalities. 

Beyond developing economies, this idea promotes sustainability and waste reduction on a global scale. One striking example is the creation of affordable water filters in sub-Saharan Africa. These filters, made from materials found locally, offer safe drinking water at a far lower cost than traditional purifiers. 

Beginning with Coimbatore Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (2004) and moving on to Creating a Fortune with the Base of the Pyramid (2006), the BoP strategy (bottom of the pyramid) has come a long way from its roots in seeing low-income people as passive consumers or markets to seeing them as dynamic actors in the innovation process. Unilever is only one of several multinational firms that have sought to meet the nutritional demands and budgetary restrictions of Southeast Asian populations by creating reasonably priced, wholesome food items.

But several obstacles exist in creating the road for a shared and more prosperous future through innovation for inclusive development. A common problem when scaling up effective programmes is what’s known as “pilotitis”. There is a dearth of appropriate evaluation instruments for innovation for inclusive development projects, which can hinder the development of more comprehensive plans for their rollout.

South Africa exemplifies the urgent need for such innovative approaches. The vulnerabilities are palpable, with an unemployment rate of 32.1% as of early 2024 and a food inflation rate that leaves many struggling with food insecurity. Nearly 28 million South Africans depend on government grants. In healthcare, where 71% of South Africans lack insurance and public facilities are stretched thin (one public health doctor per 2,500 people), innovative approaches are needed. The disparities in South Africa’s education system further illustrate the pressing need for innovation. With a huge gap in achievement between top schools and the rest, and only a fraction of learners reaching higher education, the system fails to equip the majority with skills necessary for upward mobility.

As we contemplate the vast challenges and undeniable opportunities presented by the call for more inclusive and egalitarian innovation, we must recognise its crucial role in shaping our shared future. The transformative potential of grassroots and frugal innovation approaches is not merely academic; it is a lifeline for billions. By adopting strategies that genuinely meet the needs of the underserved, we can make strides towards bridging the chasms of inequality that have long hindered global progress. 

Let us champion these innovations for inclusive development not as alternative options but as fundamental imperatives. With concerted effort and unwavering commitment, we can ensure that innovation is a powerful tool for development, inclusivity, and social justice, building a future where prosperity is not a privilege for the few but a possibility for all.

Sara Grobbelaar is a professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and a research fellow at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation at Stellenbosch University.