Fair and Frugal

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The Centre where I work is predominantly focused on frugal innovations in Africa. To be honest, at the start of my traineeship I did not know much more about Africa than what I had learned during my five years of voluntary work for the Fair Trade shop at the university where I studied Sociology. So far, I only knew that African people produced, amongst others, beautiful gifts under human friendly labour circumstances. My motivation for supporting Fair Trade was to strengthen the developing world in terms of human and economic development.

But, as Bob Dylan would sing: ‘The times they are a-changin’, not all African countries are defined as developing countries anymore. For example, The Economist (2011) named Africa as the hopeful continent because of its chance to become prosperous. After decades of being regarded as a continent that needs development aid, Africa is now increasingly seen as an emerging power; it is ‘on the rise’. However, this shift must be taken with a pinch of salt: nowadays most Africans still live on less than two and a half US dollars a day. This group is often referred to as the Base of the Pyramid (BoP).

Taking this into account, I think that the Centre where I work fits very well within this new paradigm. Its original aim is not to provide development aid, comparable to initiatives such as the Fair Trade shop. Quite the contrary, the aim is inter alia to investigate under which conditions frugal innovations can contribute to local economic growth in Africa. The developed world is not to ‘help’ anymore, but rather to interact on an equal footing with Africans. Therefore, I am eager to learn about things such as African consumer preferences or about what kind of frugal innovations they develop for their local markets.

In a narrow sense, the concept of ‘frugal innovation’ refers to the adaptation or re-invention of high-tech consumer products resulting in a more affordable product. These re-inventions and adaptations can be done in several ways. For example, this can be done by lowering the use of product resources, or by changing the production process or outcome. For people with low incomes, frugal innovations can be of great benefit to uplift their living standard.

In my work, I have three main tasks: (1) facilitating communication, (2) conducting research and (3) writing project proposals. Getting a sense of what frugal innovation actually entails, was one of the things that kept me busy during my initial working days. The concept seems very clear at first sight. However, when reading more about it, my perception became blurred by the enormous range of concepts that are quite similar but yet somehow quite different from frugal innovation, e.g. jugaad innovation, reverse innovation, Base of Pyramid innovation, and so on. I think it is a great challenge to learn about all of these concepts and to try to synthesizing them.

To be continued..

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