Innovation or in simple words, continuous improvement has been the biggest hype in the last few decades. It usually happens with the development of a totally novel approach or around the alteration of existing ones and sometimes is enough to disrupt the whole system. However, pursuing innovative ideas is about balancing opportunity with risk. There’s always a chance that the innovation might not work out but there’s also ways to mitigate that.
Taiwan, the tenth most innovative economy in the world is also one of the world’s biggest semiconductor suppliers. In the 1950s and 60s, Taiwan was very similar to Bangladesh in a lot of ways; dependent upon foreign aid for development. But, that changed pretty quickly when Taiwan intentionally pursued the strategy to build wealth through innovation.
The risk of a bump in the economy was alleviated with privatization of government organizations which made the system more efficient and emphasis was put on education that encouraged engineering and innovation. They also realized that being stagnant was never a choice as other countries would soon catch up and rival them with cheaper prices. South Korea and Hong Kong also pursued similar economic shifts, moving away from cheap, labor intensive manufacturing to skilled service industry and luxury shipping respectively. The idea of constantly evolving has never been more important; even the simplest of tweaks can bring a world of change into our system.
But, Bangladesh has not yet pursued a similar shift/economic growth, and remains with a starkly smaller and more sluggish economy from these Asian countries primarily because we don’t have the incentives or strategies that values innovation. We lack understanding in what innovation necessarily means. Most of us assume it to be something in the line of a very modern, sophisticated product that is unattainable. We don’t think along the lines of a new market segment, value added services or find a new way to an old business model. We simply do not want to cross boundaries.
This is partially because it’s easier and cheaper to imitate. People innovate when they see that innovation will give them a competitive edge and they will only put in their resources when they see that they will get a premium price for it. But, unfortunately, the consumers in Bangladesh do not yet have the mindset to pay the extra price for the added value.
Bangladesh, with its 160 million people should have been a lucrative market for any investor. The sheer masses of this population represent a huge market, where people are interested in producing, buying and consuming innovative products. The Bangladeshi market calls for frugal, scale able, trustworthy and user friendly innovation which clearly the manufacturers are unable to tap into.
Our market works best when we come together, when interactions between multiple stakeholders happen. Having a shorter innovation cycle especially in agriculture clearly requires multidimensional involvement from all the patrons in this effort. However, with all the merits of the holistic approach, the firms still continue to shy away from the interaction and we are left with a low level of innovation given Bangladesh’s human capital resources.
Currently, where we are at is not the worst place to be nor do we need any revolution to change things around. What we need is to look at the challenges that stop us from moving forward and work around those specific bumps/ potholes. We only need a few of the firms to move away from the old, traditional practices and think about disruptive ways that will eventually put enough pressure on their competitors and the overall market will evolve to be more innovative.
The inefficient innovation cycle cannot only be explained by the inactive participation of private sector; government research bodies play a role in stifling innovation as well. Despite having a fixed amount of allocated fund, research bodies inadequately address the problem mainly due to the lack of communication with private sector. The solutions that they come up with don’t do much problem solving for the customers as they do not coordinate with private sector before conducting research on a new product. So, the final product is not appropriate for commercial sale and thus that one prototype never sees the light of the day.
Some of our policies do not even support innovation; the heavy taxation on machinery components and spare parts import is one big barrier for agro machinery manufacturers. On the other hand, the duty on agro technology from India or China is much less; home grown machineries thus cost way more than the imported ones. New companies do not want to enter the scene because of the difficulties of doing business in Bangladesh.
The academia also needs to come into the innovation cycle and work alongside the private sector in order to build the trust that lacks among the target customers when it comes to local agro innovation. Instead of putting funds into their own research, the private sector can perhaps commit a bit of their time and money to the academia and counsel them about the market need. The academia in turn can take in as much market information as possible to come up with relevant technology.
With academia, public and private sector working together, the task of attaining a shorter innovation cycle will be much easier. For this to happen, communication needs to be given the highest emphasis at this point. When it comes to making a technology work, communication is the key for business success.
***Ms. Shafinaz Hossain works with USAID’s Agricultural Value Chains Project as a Research and Technology Commercialization Associate. She graduated from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), under the University of Dhaka. She was the Winner of the Thought for Food (TFF) Challenge 2015 organized by Syngenta Corp in Lisbon, Portugal; the 1st Runners Up of Business Today Impact Challenge 2015 (BTIC) organized by Business Today and Princeton University in New York, USA.