Innovation is old. As paradoxical as the statement may seem, methods and inventions touted as “new” are simply rediscovered and reiterated elements of ancient wisdom. Remember David Livingstone “discovering and innovating” the Victoria falls—seriously?
Rather than thinking of innovation as a young geek with Google glasses whose first language is code, and whose hands have the imprint of computer keys, innovation is more like great grandmother’s walking stick and pestle and mortar. Its wrinkles are deep lines etched into history like each sentence on this page. The geek can rediscover it, decode it (puns always intended) and reorganise it, but it is indubitably founded on the base of knowledge that preceded our existence.
Africa has for too long been a synonym for rudimentary knowledge, while the western world is deemed the bedrock of innovation. This western-centrism is not only flawed but sickening. The idea that, when someone names something first, the theory, process or product, is often credited to them is retrogressive and capitalistic. One such ‘patenter’ of old goods is “modern science”, this phrase is in quotation marks because its allusion to modernity can distract from its roots in historical actuality. The branding and patenting of what passes as “real” scientific knowledge and innovation has greatly favoured the myth that innovation is new, and it comes from specific parts of the world.
Globalisation has only cemented this mindset by touting tech and innovation as the products and the machines you are probably reading this piece off now. What we do not realise is, the more homogenous we become through hand and lap-held gadgets, and the more we subscribe to the idea of innovation as something that is scientifically documented in a journal first, we are in danger of missing out on traditional brilliance.
Today, what we used to know as entrepreneurship has a new name and face – ‘start-ups’. Ironically, our sisters and mothers have always traded goods on street corners and markets. We have always done it. Women’s groups have always existed in one form or the other. The sick have always relied on traditional foods for health and longevity.
This is not to say that nothing “new” exists, but the tenets upon which those new items are created are old; it is simply how they are assembled, and the media through which they are transmitted that is new. Writing existed before this laptop I am typing on and the screen you are looking at. African medicine and foods down-played centuries ago are now a reference point for healthy living.
The food industry is good example of how old innovation is. The so-called “new” super fruits and foods, such as Moringa, Baobab and Marula (these are the well-known ones but there are others which are still ‘obscure’ to science because they haven’t been discovered by a celebrity yet, or been sent to science labs to test their properties) have been used by local communities for millenia. This new age buzz of “future foods” is humorous to the Zimbabwean in the rural area who has always know that grandmother said to boil Zumbani for colds, and chew blackjack for longevity and other ailments. All of a sudden science is catching up and calling the world to see the miraculous health benefits these new alternative cures. The legitimacy of ancient remedies and methods is slowly being confirmed by modern science. At least there is a great deal of knowledge for studies to tap into.
For example, a truly inspirational story of old methods surpassing modern innovation is ‘the man who stopped the desert’, Yacouba Sawadogo who used Zaï, a traditional farming technique to restore drought-stricken soils and mitigate the effects of desertification. The use of permaculture to address man-made modern disasters underscores the origins of innovative farming practices. Our tools and methods may improve, but the fundamental tenets of innovation are indeed old. Yes, to the innovators – look to the past for clues.