Islam Analysis: It’s time to innovate for the poor

This article was originally published on the SciDev.Net Website 0n 9 August 2012.

Marc McIlhone – AfricanBrains

In a World where the gap between the haves and the have nots seems to forever be growing wider is there a glimmer of light ?

Research into nano-technologies and supercomputing will undoubtedly reap rewards in the future. But what about the here and now?

Muslim countries can show little impact of science on the ‘bottom of the pyramid’. But there are good models to follow, says Athar Osama.

Many Muslim countries in Asia and North Africa are among the poorest in the world. In an attempt to address challenges of economic development, employment generation, and long-term competitiveness, a number of member countries in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have invested much more in research in recent years — although at about 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), they are still below the average for the developing world.

It is hard to determine what difference this investment has made to the life of the average citizen. And there is little consensus — let alone an explicit strategy — to apply the power of science and innovation to address the challenges faced by those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ — the largest and poorest socioeconomic group.

Innovation for the poor

The term ‘bottom of the pyramid’ was originally used by US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to draw attention to the plight of the poor during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It has re-emerged in the mid-2000s and in recent economic literature to describe those living on under US$2.5 a day.

Business expert C. K. Prahalad, in particular, has written and spoken widely about the ‘fortune’ to be made at the bottom of the pyramid by those who dare to target this market. [1]

It has given rise to a new class of entrepreneurship from big corporations right down to small, isolated initiatives. The focus on the poor has unleashed considerable creativity for “unique products, unique services, and unique technologies” and “completely reimagining the business”. Examples include microfinance, mobile money and energy and water treatment systems. [2]

In Pakistan, for instance, Naya Jeevan, a not-for-profit social enterprise, seeks to provide healthcare insurance to the poor by combining micro-payments with partnerships with key players across the ‘value chain’.

The approach can also make products as well as services cheaper, which often requires innovative design and alternatives to expensive materials.

In computing, examples include One Laptop per-Child (OLPC) and India’s Simputer, while also in India, the Nano is a US$2,000 ‘affordable’ car aimed at expanding the nation’s car market by 65 per cent. While these do not target the absolute bottom of the pyramid, at least not without a substantial government subsidy, they signal a trend towards innovation for the poor.

Demand in Muslim countries

The Muslim world has been slow to catch up with the spirit, and the practice, of innovating for the bottom of the pyramid. But there is no shortage of demand. 

The tension between rising investment in research and the lack of benefits for ordinary citizens was aired in a recent TV show in Pakistan called The People’s Court (Awam Ki Adalat) where the host demanded answers from Javaid Laghari, chairman of Pakistan’s higher education commission. It was noted that while tens of billions of rupees have been spent on thousands of PhDs over the last decade, the plight of the average citizen has only worsened. [3]

Laghari seemed to have no coherent answer to the barrage of pointed questions thrown at him, beyond mentioning the increase in the number of mango varieties grown in Pakistan, and a top-ranked Blackberry application developed in the country. But neither of these have any direct connection to the investment in PhDs.

And therein lies the problem: too much that is being done in the name of science has no relevance to needs on the ground. With the exception of a few energy, agriculture and information technology initiatives, such as cheap drip irrigation systems and mobile-based health reporting, Islamic countries can show little impact of science on people’s lives.

By and large, most disciplines in which PhDs are awarded — such as nanotechnology, mechatronics, integrated circuits and supercomputing — tend to serve as a one-way ticket to jobs abroad rather than practical application at home.

Changing the mindset

A strategy to innovate for the bottom of the pyramid could pay handsome dividends for Islamic countries. This could take a number of forms but above all it requires a fundamental change in incentive systems and the mindset of the scientific community, the innovators, and ultimately the entrepreneurs.

It may mean developing technology for the mass market rather than the elite; focusing on operational excellence and design to maximise profits with lower prices; and creating new business and partnering models to ensure uptake and sustainability.

There are good examples to follow. The most apt is D-Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which seeks to improve the quality of life of low-income households through low-cost technologies. It draws on principles such as experiential learning, promoting local creative capacity, and valuing indigenous knowledge.

The Islamic world can achieve a lot by adopting some of these ideas as the foundation of an innovation eco-system designed to deliver practical solutions to the problems of the poor. Doing so could also re-balance the investment in science that has been removed from the development needs of these countries for too long.