Interview

Fish hooks are not enough

Issue 86 - spring 2020

Efosa Ojomo believes that his home country Nigeria can make a leap out of poverty in the coming decades through market-creating innovations. He himself would like to continue on the path of his mentor Clayton Christensen.

Efosa Ojomo, Christensen Institute
In your book “The Prosperity Paradox” you present the concept of market-creating innovations. Did the book itself create a market for readers and interested parties who also want to implement this concept?

Ojomo: The ideas in our book are counter-intuitive. Accordingly, we assumed that it would take a while for them to be adopted. But we were wrong. We see great demand and dynamism among entrepreneurs. Because the ideas are so eye-opening, they are adopted on a broad basis. For example, one organization has set up a fund called the Harambeans Prosperity Fund to invest in market-creating innovations in Africa. And we are currently developing an initiative to help local entrepreneurs make similar investments. We are optimistic that this is the key to sustainable development in emerging and developing countries. 

Some voices say that the path to sustainable development only leads through classic industrialization and that there are no shortcuts, for example through disruptive innovations. How do you feel about it?

Ojomo: If you rank growth and development based on the level of agriculture, industry and services, you are using the wrong categories. This macro perspective does not help. It is the companies that you have to look into because they are the ones that invest. When you do that, you find that innovation is the only way forward. Industrialization is simply a manifestation of innovation. The Asian tiger states, which grew rapidly, industrialized, but it is much better to say that they were particularly innovative. Innovation is what has enabled a country like Singapore to evolve from fishing hook manufacturing to a biotech pioneer. Countries don't get rich with fish hooks. They get rich when they go from making fish hooks to more advanced products. Today, with Ethiopia industrializing, it would be important that it focus its efforts on moving from making t-shirts to auto parts. And that is where the focus should be on opening up completely new consumers.

What role can development cooperation play in this?

Ojomo: It has to be geared more towards market-creating innovations and thus sustainable economic development. In impoverished Taiwan in the 1950s, USAID provided the capital necessary to establish Formosa Plastics. In the mid-1960s, Formosa had partnerships with several international companies and diversified in the manufacture of various products, including rayon and acrylic. Formosa was Taiwan's leading manufacturer of man-made fibers in the 1970s, and today it is one of the world's largest manufacturers of plastics. Aid, when used properly, can be a powerful catalyst for growth and sustainable development. 

One of the characteristics of the United States where you live and work is steadfast optimism. Is what you're telling us an updated version of the American Dream for Developing Countries?

Ojomo: Yes, and I do it with complete conviction. I left Nigeria almost 20 years ago with no intention of ever going back. I was desperate that my homeland would not find a way to develop in my lifetime. There was just too much to overcome: corruption, bad institutions, no infrastructure. But by working with Clayton Christensen, I found hope again. Professor Christensen helped me see the world through different glasses. That's what we offer with our book.

Vielen Dank für das Gespräch!
Photo: Christensen Institute

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See new markets

For politicians, non-voters are a hotly contested target group. At the same time, the situation is different in business: too few entrepreneurs have radar on those who do not have access to existing products. The concept of market creating innovations by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen should change that.