Entrepreneurs and markets

While most entrepreneurs depend on functioning and competitive markets to survive, there are those entrepreneurs that actually thrive in imperfect markets. These are the entrepreneurs that creates a business around something like an information failure, high costs of finding suppliers or customers (brokering), or overcoming economies of scale (for instance by leasing expensive equipment on a pay-per-use basis).  Their services or products are valuable to the societies that they create their businesses in, as they overcome barriers to entry and barriers to upgrading. However, there are long term consequences to an economy that is riddled with market failures especially when these failures become very profitable for some. But more about that later.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that entrepreneurs that exploit market failures to create new markets often earn disproportionate returns. They take huge risks as governments could address the market imperfection if it had the will, the competence and the resources to do so. Once these entrepreneurs are established they often have near monopoly market dominance. Unequal income for me is not such a big problem (it basically tells me there are many systemic failures), rather unequal opportunities is a much bigger issue as it is more widespread. For instance, can the cycle of inter-generational poverty be broken in a society? Can a child from a poor rural location one day choose to become a lawyer, engineer, or teacher; or are they trapped with few options? Is the society creating opportunities only for a few entrepreneurs that have connections and that can protect their interests, or are we creating markets where many entrepreneurs can compete in?

In a European country, with layers and layers of competition and market policies, most entrepreneurs compete on a more-or-less even playing field with markets that are carefully designed, or regulated as they emerge. In Africa, many entrepreneurs are competing in markets where government actually introduce imperfections, largely because markets and competition is not trusted (it is called the Law of Unintended Consequences). The situation is also made worse in that our market regulating and shaping institutions are often not resourced sufficiently and over-run with both creating market systems and coping with ongoing change.

How to overcome this situation?

Industrial policy in developing countries cannot be driven only from the perspective of trade and industry, as many other departments (or policy areas) are introducing market failures into the system in for instance health, education, science and agriculture. These conflicting policies then creates market imperfections that if exploited by a few entrepreneurs will lead to huge profits and a firm market footing. Society may benefit in the short term from a particular solution being available, but in the long term society may be stuck with a market that very quickly develops its own interests that may not necessarily be in the interests of the wider society.

Furthermore, market institutions must recognize and identify the patterns that plays out repeatedly in a society, and try to address these. We should not celebrate when one entrepreneur jumps on an opportunity (although this is still better that nothing). We should celebrate when many entrepreneurs are crowded into a market. I don’t know whether it is naive to ask policy makers to also think about the unintended consequences of their decisions. This is the reason why we’ve had to delve into complexity theories to try and curb the damage being done by well-intended policies.

If we do not succeed in building the right market systems that are based on fair competition we will forever be creating opportunities just for a few entrepreneurs. In the meantime, we depend on a few entrepreneurs that combine intelligence about an opportunity with the right resources and the right competences.

The difference between invention and innovation

This post is copied from a chapter in a book that I am working on about the fundamentals of innovation systems. I am responsible for the thematic area of innovation systems within the knowledge consultancy mesopartner that I am a partner of. If you want to stay abreast of the work I am doing on this topic then I urge you to subscribe to my blogsite so that you can receive an e-mail every time I add some content (click on the sign me up button on the top right).

We often find that development practitioners, business people and policy makers are not clear about the distinctions between innovation and invention.

A widely accepted distinction between invention and innovation is provided by Fagerberg et al. (2005:4). According to Fagerberg et al., invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process (first to the world), while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out in practice within a specific context (by, for instance, introducing a machine from another country into a local manufacturing process). Thus invention and innovation could be closely linked, although in most cases they are separated in time (sometimes decades or centuries), place and organisation. However, the fact that innovation typically emerges within a complex system is often overlooked. For instance, as Schumpeter (1964/1911) explained, the innovator who invented the steam engine still had to wait for others to develop the different aspects of the rail system before it could be commercially viable. The steam engine was initially invented in a completely different context, again illustrating how inventions are dependent on the context in which they arise.

While many innovations can be linked to well-funded research programmes, funding is not a pre-condition for innovation. In fact, in many cases a lack of resources could stimulate people to innovate. Firms usually innovate because they believe there is a commercial benefit to the effort and costs involved in innovating. This commercial benefit could be measured in terms of return on investment or profits, but it could also be about cost saving, resource optimisation, solving a recurring problem or responding to the demands of a customer. Often increased competition, changes in market structure or market demand, or changes in technological performance also affect the innovation process. However, innovation requires taking or at least managing risks. Therefore, firms with low capital or with tied up resources are less likely to innovate.

To turn an invention into an innovation, a firm typically needs to combine several different types of knowledge, capabilities, skills and resources from within the organisation and the external environment (Schumpeter, 1964/1911). The interaction between knowledge and learning will be discussed in more detail in the next section.

The willingness of an individual to tinker and explore better solutions is influenced in part by the organisational context of the innovator, but also by factors such as education, qualifications, meta-level factors such as culture, personal characteristics (such as patience, inquisitiveness or tolerance of failure) and the institutional environment. Other factors such as competitive pressure, problem pressure, or social and economic incentives also play a role. Locations with a more diverse economic and social make-up are more likely to be conducive to innovation, as actors interact with people with similar and different interests. The proximity of other actors and the density of interactions make imitation, cross-pollination of ideas, learning from others and the combination of different ideas into new products and services more viable (and less expensive). This feature could explain why urban areas are often hotbeds of innovation – there are more people with different ideas and perspectives that stimulates and often absorbs new innovations.

Why does this matter? Well, many countries (including South Africa) over emphasize “invention” (even when they say “innovation”). Many financial incentives, loans and support programmes prioritize novelty as opposed to absorption. Absorption is important for innovation, as it indicates how ready firms, industries or societies are to not only learn from their own mistakes (and success), but to also learn from the mistakes and the success of others.

Therefore innovation stimulation is about getting our developing countries ready and willing to absorb insights and ideas from others, as much as it is about getting our entrepreneurs to be creative.

As someone famous once said: “why re-invent the wheel?”. With our small budgets we are highly unlikely to out-invent our international peers on many of the topics that are now seen as “sexy” like climate technology etc.

Our priority should remain to get our entrepreneurs and enterprises to be innovative at product, process and business model level. Only once we improve our absorptive capacity will we be able to become inventive.


FAGERBERG, J., MOWERY, D.C. & NELSON, R.R. 2005.  The Oxford handbook of innovation. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

SCHUMPETER, J. 1964/1911.  Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung. Eine Untersuchung über Unternehmergewinn, Kapital, Kredit, Zins und den Konjunkturzyklus. Berlin: Duncker und Humblot.

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