The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed, goes the saying. Logically, the most developed markets are ahead, so what they have now is what we’ll get soon. In Europe, we used to look at the USA and Japan for trends and innovation ideas which we could adopt or adapt to our own marketplace. In food and beverage, this held true for a long time, in part because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Corporations large and small imported or copied successful products and brands from markets they saw as being more advanced. It’s no secret that SouthWest Airlines was the model for Europe’s budget airlines. Yo Sushi’s food on price-coded plates on a rotating belt, which was so novel for the UK, is standard practice in Tokyo.

In technology development, European businesses could usually garner plenty of good, progressive ideas for their markets by studying the USA and Japan. But something strange is happening in industry sectors and product categories where technology can make a difference – which is quite a few. It’s no longer enough to look at developed markets. Real innovation is happening in developing markets which could be said to be behind Europe in that they have not yet adopted some of our technologies, and yet they are leapfrogging us, and bypassing those technologies. Much of this is driven by telecommunications.

For a long time, development in many of the world’s poorest countries was inhibited not only by lack of natural resources, and/or corruption, but also by a lack of transport and communications infrastructure. Even those countries rich in natural resources found it difficult to build a national communications network. The information age seemed beyond the reach of the vast African countries in particular. Impossible to imagine installing the millions of miles of cable it would take to provide national connectivity. Then wireless comms came along.

For us in Europe, there was a natural progression. First we had wired telephony, then wireless telephony, then wired internet connectivity, then wireless everything. But who needs wired anything when you have wireless comms? Better still, wireless everything without the drag factor of having invested in other, more old-fashioned infrastructure. It gives the ability to create and promote new services without having to change consumer habits and behaviour from the old ways. Suddenly, the term “legacy systems” has a whole new meaning. Fixed line telephony and internet are simply not needed. Bank branches are legacy systems. Maybe, with remote learning, university campuses are too. In countries where these infrastructure assets are scarce, it’s no longer a barrier to progress. It may even be an enabler.

We tend to think of African use of tech as affordable or sustainable tech – low cost mobile phones, for example, with batteries rechargeable from the sun. This view suggests we can look there for inspiration for “bottom of the pyramid” ideas, ways to bring tech to the masses. I think that’s not even the half of it. The rapid spread of mobile comms, without the assumptions or costs that come with legacy infrastructure, is creating whole new ways to get things done. Retail banking is a prime example. It’s said that there are only six bank branches in Nairobi, a city of over 3 million people, as big as Manchester and Liverpool combined. The main reason is M-PESA, a mobile-phone based money transfer service run by the dominant mobile network operator, Safaricom, and now used by about two thirds of Kenya’s adult population.

Low tech businesses like farming can also benefit. WeFarm is a communication platform that runs on plain mobile phones, not smartphones, and enables farmers to find out the market price for their crops in different locations, so they can quickly sell their produce at the best price. It’s a simple idea that doesn’t need fancy hardware or software, and creates the classical economist?’s ideal situation for a free market: perfect information, available to all.

African mobile phone owners are also inspiring innovation in marketing services. Brandtone, for example, is helping Unilever, SAB Miller, and others, engage directly with a growing database of their consumers. Their use of SMS is much more subtle and rewarding for consumers than the spam we’ve grown used to in the UK. It’s making one-to-one marketing possible for fmcg brands, at scale.

So it’s true, the future is already here, but not always where you expect.


Previous posts on inspiration for innovation:

Keep dreaming

Desperately seeking dissatisfied customers

Getting customers to do it your way

Why be different when you could just be better?

What coat hangers teach us about business-to-business marketing

Thought leadership | February 2015