Innovation thrives without structure

By Priyash Bista

The pilot announced it was going to be one of the coldest nights in Nairobi. On my flight to Kenya, locals sitting next to me prepared to layer on their clothes as we landed. It was the middle of winter and people looked stressed as they prepared to leave the aircraft clutching their winter clothes; unsure of weather they needed to put it on right away or if the airport heating would suffice.

I panicked as I had no warm clothes, being Canadian I decided to embrace it and exited the aircraft - to a surprisingly summer like 18°C weather. This is when I realized that even though we all share similar bodies, our experience is dictated by the environment we live in.

I got to Nairobi fairly late, here to attend the first ever youth forum at the 14th UNCTAD conference. Leaders and experts from around the world were here, alongside students and recent graduates selected to attend this event to empower and engage the youth in negotiating resolutions that will impact our future.

A few months ago when Enactus Mount Royal students presented our Kenyan project, we stated "Entrepreneurship, that is a new word we want to give to you to describe Africa". When I first heard this, I thought that we were changing the lives of people that had no idea what entrepreneurship was.

Boy was I wrong, the next day, on our way to the conference center there was a huge grid lock. Nairobi traffic comes to a stand still for hours from 8 am to about 8 pm. But something was very different about this, the traffic lanes turned into a bustling marketplace for street marketers carrying various products. They sold everything from fresh fruits, small electronics to bed linings and pillowcases.

I told my friend that there couldn't be a market for this service, when suddenly I was interrupted by our Uber driver who said that this business was very profitable. Instead of waiting at the store for clients, vendors hired people to sell items on their behalf. The business model usually worked like this: A store owner supplied his goods to people he knew - the sellers clocked in and hit the road - the transactions took place - customers requested for specific items for the next day - the sellers went back, split the profits with the owner, provided feedback, and left the unsold items.

This marketplace created a short feedback loop that satisfied the customer and the owner. Since the customers were too busy to shop on weekdays, they relied on street vendors to provide essential items while they waited in traffic. The store owners received immediate feedback and supplied items as required by their clientele without ever leaving their storefront.

My brief time in Kenya made me realize that innovation at its core is realizing new opportunities through channels that already exist. Channels that are either constantly adapting to fill the void in current infrastructures, or leveraging it to service an unfulfilled market segment. Case in point is the scale at which Uber and AirBnB are getting adopted in Kenya and other developing nations, which speaks volumes as our own city's "developed-ness" is hampering its ability to adapt services like these.