Necessity has been the driver of invention in Africa perhaps more than any other region of the world. In most nations on the continent, notes Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, everyday life requires innovative responses to a daunting string of challenges. “You have to be able to think on your feet and develop creative workarounds to get things done.”
Gregersen believes this demanding environment could prove ideal for producing the next generation of innovators. In Africa, he says, business leaders have few opportunities for complacency. “Leaders hoping to create new markets and develop business opportunities have to be open to surprises. They also must be able to take setbacks in stride. In temperament, nearly all successful innovators are very present in the world around them. Operating in a somewhat unstable environment commands your attention and delivers opportunities you might overlook if everything is running smoothly.”
Not that uncertainty and turmoil are ideal conditions for sustainable development. Gregersen acknowledges the profound constraints that exist on developing a generation of creative entrepreneurs in African countries. “One of the great tasks of present-day leaders,” says Gregersen, “is establishing trust-based environments for teaching and learning in communities across the continent.” Gregersen cites the transnational art education initiative Room 13 as one example of how this can be accomplished.
Regulation is generally considered a dirty word in the realm of big energy. “Regulation stifles innovation,” is a common mantra throughout the industry. But David Parkin, SF ’12, has a different perspective. When Parkin worked for a natural gas startup earlier in his career, innovations related to carbon footprints and renewable sources didn’t figure into his strategic vision. “There’s a bit of irony in my current position,” says Parkin. “Here I am with the UK’s largest natural gas provider in a strictly regulated environment, and I have to be more nimble and innovative in my thinking than when I was with a startup.”
As Director of Network Strategy for gas distribution at National Grid UK— a government-regulated energy monopoly—Parkin, has to innovate within the confines of comprehensive criteria. “Our performance,” Parkin explains, “is measured by the security of the supply, affordability for consumers, and the extent to which we are minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. We have to balance all three within an eight-year price control structure. Regulators set our revenue based not on what we spend to provide natural gas service but on what we achieve for our customers on those three criteria.”
This recently established regulatory framework exerts a strong influence on National Grid’s entrepreneurial thinking. “Historically, we were driven by the same imperatives propelling most large companies—minimize expenditures and maximize revenue,” says Parkin. “Now, we have to identify and develop innovations that deliver beneficial outcomes across several performance metrics through an eight-year cycle.”
Clarity of vision, says South African tech entrepreneur Xoli Kakana, SF ’08, is central to all African solutions. And she believes that the absence of that vision is what plagues the continent. “Most African leaders exhibit very little understanding of the systems and power bases that sustain the problems plaguing their nations,” she says. “They do not commit boldly to tackling all components of those systems with the persistence and focus necessary and supported by the appropriate mechanisms that enable monitoring and evaluation.”
Founder and Group CEO of ICT-Works, Kakana knows a thing or two about clarity of vision. She has overcome myriad cultural and technological challenges to raise the standard of IT and telecom services in South Africa and boost career opportunities for women in her country. She concedes that the sheer enormity of the African continent—with 54 individual nations—makes it very difficult to generalize about leadership challenges, but believes that most African countries are hindered by a few common failings—poor governance, for example, weak institutions, a lack of infrastructure, and a reluctance to own any of those crippling problems.