Just Another Blog on Innovation…

Posted April 5, 2021

Furniture made from recycled tyres. Image Courtesy: Tyre Treasures

Being a Solution Mapper, I have come across this one particular word on a daily basis- whether it be in the invite to a webinar, a team discussion, a zoom call with a potential partner or blogs from fellow Labbers. And frankly I didn’t pay much attention to it as I too am guilty of using it rather frivolously. Until recently, this word caught my attention in a way it hadn’t before…

My 8-year-old niece recently told me that she wants to become an “Innovator”. When I asked her if she knew what an innovator meant, she promptly responded, “Yes! Steve Jobs and Alone Mosk (baby pronunciation for Elon Musk)”. Once the initial shock and appreciation for knowing these people and saying their names (almost) correctly settled, I asked her why she wanted to be like them, to which she replied because they make “nice things”. And just like that, I felt like I heard the word “Innovation” for the very first time. My work revolves around seeking and identifying innovations that solvechallenges of today. And because of my entanglement with this word on a professional level, I lost the overall meaning and value that it holds. When I speak to an innovator about their innovation, rarely do I ask them “why” and “what” got them started in the first place. Because to me, the important thing is deliverables and deadlines not the hard work and love innovators put into simple things that turn them into “nice things”.

I recollected some of the conversations I had with few local innovators and wanted to redo them. I wanted to test a hypothesis that “If we understand why people do what they do, we will truly understand what it is they do”. The starting point for any innovator is one of the most challenging ones. This is the time when most of them are crossing the bridge from being an innovator to an entrepreneur. From someone who creates “nice things” in new ways they are working towards creating value out of the same. This is the time they are faced with condescending remarks about their innovation, financial limitations, and half-hearted yeses. Take it from Ojaswi Baidya (Founder of Tyre Treasures), who says that these beginning times is what determined her future in the industry, one develops a thick skin and because they have seen the worst of times, they are armored to confront any battle that lies ahead. During the initial days of Tyre Treasures, Ms. Baidya and her business partners were consumed with exploring solutions to stop the practice of burning discarded tyres.

When the idea of turning these used tyres into beautiful and practical furniture pieces was born there was no looking back. As the prototypes and tests became successful, they slowly started turning their innovation to a marketable solution. Her first major set-back came as she and another co-founder (a female) were seeking to rent an office space. She recalls when negotiating the deal, the landlord, a guy in his mid-40s, refused to speak with them and ordered them to put him in touch with their “Sir”- the boss. Because to him, as per Ms. Baidya, the two girls in their early 20s couldn’t possibly be business owners. She says there were many instances like this that made her doubt if she could continue fulfilling her passion but there were also people who understood her drive and backed her up with support to continue forward. She says during challenging times (and as an innovator there are many), the trust people show helps her to go that extra mile. That trust can be something as simple as being invited to speak at a forum for “Creating Green Future” or an order for a Tyre Treasure product.

Providing last mile financing to women in Nepal. Image Courtesy: Aeloi Technologies

“Innovation is the ability to see things in a different way and because others don’t see it in the same light, you build-up evidences and models to show others what you see”, says Tiffany Tong Co-Founder of Aeloi Technologies. From her experience of working in FinTech which is traditionally a male dominated industry, she has to work extra harder and speak a little louder to be heard. This experience helped her empathize with women who are underestimated and due to cultural or social norms do not have access to financial literacy or independence. With the zeal to prove people wrong, Tiffany sees innovation as a tool to break glass ceilings.

This brief exchange with Ms. Baidya and Ms. Tong, solidified the notion of innovators being mere creators of “nice things” which have a potential to solve a local (if not global) problems. And, their dedication towards creating the solution is so potent that no matter the magnitude of the setbacks, they are able to bounce back with renewed vigor. As someone who constantly looks out for innovations that have the potential to solve wicked development challenges, encounters like these have helped me change the narrative and consider placing my bets not just on innovations alone but the innovator as well. Afterall, the power of innovation is determined by the perseverance of the innovator.

UNDP Accelerator Lab in Nepal is working closely with development partners, the private sectors and grassroot innovators as a “vehicle” to test innovative solutions around unplanned urbanization and unemployment. It is on a quest to invest technical expertise on these two frontier issues in order to map, and explore a portfolio of experiments to foresee more possibilities.