New Product Adoption Is the Art of Incentives: The Example of Photoelectric Kits in Africa

In the 1970s, the French government decided to help Africa develop. The lack of lighting had long been identified as an obstacle to development: without lighting, for instance, children could not do their homework at night. Thus the French government decided to subsidize the design and manufacturing of light kits. A small solar panel charged its battery in the day in order to be used at night. The tender was launched, a company that designed robust kits won the contract and the kits were sent to Africa to be distributed. But just a few weeks after the operation was launched, it failed. The kits were not used. Why?

A study showed that the problem was not with the product. It met the required specifications. It was done on time, on specs, and on budget. Upon further examination, it was observed that the choice of the sites where the first kits would be installed were subject to local political pressures and ended up in places where they were not necessarily useful, at any rate, far from the children. Because these kits were offered and not sold, it was not so simple to decide who would receive them.

Moreover, local repairmen were against this kit. To avoid breakdowns, French engineers had sealed the entire battery that made local repair impossible and deprived these repairmen of a source of income and power. In addition, the electric wire of the kit was too short and prevented installation on a roof, which is indispensable in this part of the world to protect it from roaming livestock. Lastly, the type of light bulb used was a standard unknown in Africa. And the list goes on and on.

This example illustrates a very important concept in innovation: we think innovation works with scientists inventing and users passively adopting the invention. But this is rarely the case. Innovation is a process of adoption, appropriation and deviation in which the “users” often play an active role alongside other stakeholders who are not necessarily users.

Identifying the “users”, and more generally the network of stakeholders involved in the process of adoption, and understanding their motivation, are essential as their reasons for wanting or rejecting a product are often unexpected. In our example, the French engineer, living in metropolitan Paris, would never have suspected the magnitude of the negative reactions of the local repairmen or the tribal chiefs and the effect these reactions would have in determining the success of his innovation.

Source: Madeleine Akrich et al., “The Key to Success in Innovation Part I: The Art of Interessement,” International Journal of Innovation Management 06, no. 02 (June 1, 2002): 187–206.

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