Interview Prof. Peter Knorringa
´It's not just a question of inventing a nice water filter´

Prof. Knorringa talks about smart innovations

P Knorringa
Prof. dr. Peter Knorringa, Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa

In November 2017, the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa organised an international conference. Wouter Schutten from Sleutelstad Radio interviewed Prof.Peter Knorringa, Leiden-Deft-Erasmus Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa for this occasion.

‘Our challenge is to ensure that it isn’t just a business case, but that it actually benefits the people in Africa.’

This is the transcript of the radio interview which can be found on the Sleutelstad Radio website.


Wouter Schutten: 'I’m here at Museum Volkenkunde (Museum of Ethnology) in Leiden and with good reason, because there’s a conference going on here today. Opposite me is Peter Knorringa. Peter, can you tell us a bit about what you do?’
Peter Knorringa: 'I am director of the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa.'

Wouter Schutten: ‘I don’t think that will mean much to most people...?’
Peter Knorringa: 'No, but we organised this conference. Our centre is a collaboration between Leiden University, TU Delft and Erasmus University Rotterdam. Frugal innovations are smart, inexpensive innovations that can benefit people in developing countries in particular.'  

Wouter Schutten: ‘But can we also indirectly benefit from these innovations, too?’
Peter Knorringa: 'Yes, we can, indirectly. Many of today’s innovations actually originate in Africa. New things are often invented there, which we then use here.'

Wouter Schutten: ‘How long has the collaboration been going?’
Peter Knorringa: 'The collaboration officially started in 2012, when the three universities set up a strategic alliance. But a number of people at the centre had actually been working together for some time already, so it’s actually a sort of conglomeration of things that used to happen under the radar.’

Wouter Schutten: ‘What kind of time frame are we talking about here; did the topic gradually start to gain interest over the last 20 years?’
Peter Knorringa: ‘Yes, you could say that.’

Wouter Schutten: ‘Collaboration means looking at something from different perspectives?   Is that necessary?’
Peter Knorringa: ‘Yes, it’s essential. It’s a subject where you need techies as well as anthropologists, doctors and people from the business community, because you have to come up with a business model for something like this. So it's not just a question of inventing a nice water filter, but you also have to look at the picture on the ground in Africa: what’s the main problem here?’

Wouter Schutten: ‘Probably that they can’t afford it...’
Peter Knorringa: ‘That’s just one part of it.’

Wouter Schutten: ‘There aren’t enough raw materials?’
Peter Knorringa: ‘Yes, that’s one way of looking at it. And if you mention the words ‘raw materials’, what you often see when they start designing something here, in Delft for example, people take into account the availability of raw materials here. While the trick is, of course, to use raw materials there, which occur naturally there and which you could use to make the same product in a new, more sustainable way.’

Wouter Schutten: ‘But then under different conditions, and that’s obviously a challenge.’
Peter Knorringa: 'Yes, that’s a challenge for local entrepreneurs, but it’s also a challenge for multinationals. Companies like Philips or Unilever are seriously looking at: can't we make our products much simpler and cheaper so that we can sell them to so-called 'poor' people in Africa?'

Wouter Schutten: ‘Can you give some examples?’
Peter Knorringa: ‘Yes, there are all kinds of examples. One of the most well-known is an X-ray machine. We don't even think twice about these devices being available in our hospitals here, but they cost hundreds of thousands euros.

Wouter Schutten: ‘300,000 euros.’
Peter Knorringa: 'Yes, 300,000 euros, and now you can make them for 1,500 euros and you can even carry them on the back of your bike.’

Wouter Schutten: ‘How?’
Peter Knorringa: ‘It comes down to functionality. We usually only use about 10% of what this kind of machine can actually do, but all the added functions still come with it. But if you’re making a machine for a community health worker in Africa, you only need to make something for that particular purpose. Does someone have pneumonia or not? Then you only need one small piece of that very large machine. If you make it light and simple and robust, so that it can survive being dropped on the ground or falling off the back of the bike, you have a good frugal innovation.'

Wouter Schutten: ‘The challenge is that not everyone is part of the mainstream economy. They might not have access to electricity or internet networks. How do you go about tackling such a challenge? How do you do that?’
Peter Knorringa: ‘The problem is actually worse. You say some people aren't part of the formal sector, but 70 to 80% of people are actually in the informal sector, so if you’re not relevant there, you won't get very far. So it starts by gaining a better understanding of local entrepreneurs in the informal sector in developing countries: how do they come up with solutions? And then we see what we can do to help. It’s about how you can scale up local solutions and make them more accessible.'

Wouter Schutten: 'Because scaling up those solutions is important, otherwise, business people will have no profit margin.'
Peter Knorringa: 'Yes, there’s only a slim margin so the volumes have to be relatively large. So you have to be able to scale up, as it's called. But, because it concerns specific products and services that are tailored to the local situation and fit the cultural context, you can’t just replicate them. So you can’t just scale up in the sense of mass production. You have to consider each individual region: “Oh yes, we have to change it slightly for this region and the colour has to be different, for example, because brown has a negative meaning here.” That kind of thing.’

Wouter Schutten: 'And multinationals, because you work with them, are they actually ready for that yet?'
Peter Knorringa: ‘Well, some are further along than others, so it’s still quite a challenge.
In an interview like this, it’s obviously easier to give a few good examples instead of the bad ones. We see that the local business community in Africa has difficulty understanding what the multinationals actually mean, and for the multinationals, it’s difficult to make their things understandable in that local context. So the gap between the ways of thinking and being used to doing certain things in a certain way, yes, that’s one of the key challenges. And that means that you can’t just think in terms of a technological or management solution; you also have to consider how that will be embedded in the local culture. That means you have to take politics, culture and religion into account: you need the total package. And the great thing about it is that the three universities have all that in-house, and are extremely specialised in different parts of that story. If you bring all that together, you’re onto a good thing.’

Wouter Schutten: 'I just spoke to someone who loves Delft’s water solutions and he’s here for the conference. But you don’t simply organise a conference just like that. Why this conference and why this context?’
Peter Knorringa: 'Yes, we thought the time was ripe for this conference because several people are now also doing academic research on this issue. Academia is always a little slow on the uptake. You first have to come up with a proposal and find funding. And then you have to actually do the work, and then there's six months to write everything up. So there are usually plenty of detours along the way. For example, we started in 2013 and now, in 2017, we are finally at a point where we are ready to do this. The great thing is that people are here from all over the world, from Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe, all together, who are all working hard on the subject. Our centre is committed to bringing these things together. What you’ll see here today are all kinds of case studies, for example, about water in Africa and healthcare in Asia. What are the common factors that ensure that frugal innovations really contribute to sustainability? Because you can, of course, come up with a great idea, but whether it works in practice is another thing.’

Wouter Schutten: ‘Everyone here seems to have a certain attitude. Have you also noticed that? Are you all like-minded? Or do you think that has yet to develop?’
Peter Knorringa: ’Yes, one of the things we probably haven’t worked on enough yet is that cultural context. There are a few people here who can make a great contribution in that regard, which is why we invited them to the conference. For example, there’s one lady from Finland [link] ('of all places!' you'd think), who knows a lot about that. She has a research team, which comprises people from Africa, and she has for example a project which is tackling how to ensure that people in such communities see innovation as a logical extension of their own traditions. Instead of something from outside, pushed on them by crazy white people. This is something that we always knew was important, but we didn’t have the people to really give it the attention it deserves.’

Wouter Schutten: ‘We’ll be continuing with the conference shortly, and then the guru will arrive. Can you tell us who that is?
Peter Knorringa: ’Jaideep Prabhu, he’s a professor at a management school in England [link]. He’s from India, and that’s no coincidence. Quite a few gurus in our little world come from India, and perhaps that’s why we actually use the word ‘guru’. That’s because a generation of researchers, who grew up in the informal sector in India, see what kind of things you can achieve with innovations. They are now well-known professors at management schools in America and England. They are very good at pressing home the point to the multinationals: “Guys, you are forgetting four billion people here.But if you think things through carefully and are smart about it, you can also work that market.‘ And our challenge is to ensure that it isn’t just a business case, but that it actually benefits the people in Africa.’

Meet also other team members of the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa:

SleutelstadThis interview is published with consent of Radio Sleutelstad.

More information:
Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa

Next article