Balancing innovation with proven approaches to development

Members of a TechnoServe-assisted cooperative process shea butter in the village of Kanfiehiyili, Ghana. TechnoServe is helping 4,000 poor rural women in northern Ghana to earn sustainable income by collecting and processing shea nuts. With TechnoServe's assistance, these women have more than doubled their incomes, giving them money to send their children to school and keep their families fed year round. Photo by: Nile Sprague / TechnoServe

People in developing countries deserve to benefit from the innovations of the developed world, and to drive innovation that addresses the needs of their own communities. Advances like mobile technology, biofortification and new financial products, among others, offer the potential to improve the lives of those who need it most. But in all the discussions about innovation, it is easy to overlook the fact that we already know a lot about what works in development.

We know, for example, that economic growth can help lift people out of poverty. We know that small and medium-sized enterprises are the engine of growth across the world. We know that would-be entrepreneurs benefit from a solid understanding of business fundamentals, a strong plan, and access to markets and capital.

From my own travels, I have seen that people in the developing world have no less innate talent or entrepreneurial drive than their counterparts in wealthy countries. What they lack is opportunity. They are held back by inefficient markets, poor policy and regulatory environments, crumbling infrastructure or any of the other obstacles that people in developing countries face every day.

But these are obstacles that we can overcome. In most cases, we do not have to search for brand new ideas to effect change. Instead, we need to apply established knowledge about business and markets in the context of poor communities. This basic principle has been the cornerstone of TechnoServe since its founding in 1968. Since then, countless technological advances have changed the way we live – and yet the fundamentals of what TechnoServe considers smart development remain unchanged.

Smart development is sustainable. It is designed to build capacities and promote benefits that last long after the intervention ends. Smart development focuses on the private sector and markets to help create jobs and economic opportunities for poor communities. Smart development understands that poor countries have untapped potential in certain sectors, and it builds the capacity of all the actors in these value chains, both public and private. None of these concepts is particularly innovative, and they rarely require new technologies or new ideas. Smart development simply requires a belief in the potential of the poor, and a relentless focus on execution.

Now, let me say that I am all for capitalizing on the promise of new technologies – or technologies that may be new to a particular community – to improve the lives of poor people. Ideally, these efforts help local people assess the potential of the technology and make the best choice for themselves. In India, TechnoServe is using mobile technology to give soy farmers access to market information. In Kenya, we are helping rural families install solar lighting, saving them money previously spent on kerosene or wood and creating obvious health and environmental benefits. Even our name speaks to the importance of innovation – our founder Ed Bullard came up with the shortening of ‘’technology in the service of mankind’’ after realizing how productivity-enhancing tools could transform lives in the developing world.

But technological innovations can achieve their promise only when they complement, not replace, the established principles of smart development. Ultimately, the best development programs are the ones that incorporate these innovations into frameworks that we know, through decades of experience, make a difference in poor communities. As development practitioners, we need to trust that poor people, when equipped with the right skills and knowledge, have the innate ability and determination to create a better future for themselves. How’s that for an innovative idea?

Learn more about TechnoServe’s programs at www.technoserve.org.

Learn more about the Devex Top 40 Development Innovators initiative on facebook.com/devex.

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