Gloria Muhoro believes that there are many misconceptions around innovation in the current business climate. Image: Supplied.
JOHANNESBURG -  Gloria Muhoro believes that there are many misconceptions around innovation in the current business climate. 

She says it’s less about hiring a Chief Innovation Officer and starting Innovation Labs and more about stimulating a certain kind of thinking - and women have a key role to play.  

When Gloria Muhoro was growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, her first career choice was medicine. She had good marks and she wanted to make a positive impact in the world. With a BSc in Biochemistry under her belt, she soon discovered a strong interest in business and project management which led her in a whole new direction.

“I realised I wanted to make an impact on the growth and development of whole communities,” says Miss Muhoro, who obtained a job at the African Development Bank shortly after completing an MPhil in Inclusive Innovation at the UCT Graduate School of Business in 2014.

In this role, Gloria says she is helping people every day, especially women – even though she is not a doctor. “At the African Development Bank, I can ensure that every project we approve, is gender sensitive and benefiting the community as promised. I help perform gender assessments and analysis and propose mitigation measures to ensure that gender dimensions are taken into account in our operations. As such, we get to play a very real part in improving their quality of life.” 

Her role includes fostering strategic partnerships with development partners and public and private institutions as well as designing and managing direct interventions in the areas of information communications technology for development and gender equality and women’s economic empowerment that have the potential to bring a critical mass of African women into the access, use, creation and leadership of technology. The overall goal is to catalyse women’s inclusive participation in the digital economy, which is a prerequisite for Africa’s digital transformation.

Gloria is concerned about African women falling behind in critical aspects of development. “When it comes to mobile phone use; in some cultures, barriers such as social norms, cost, literacy and privacy issues hinder women from accessing and using mobile technology. Even when women do own mobile phones, there is a significant gender gap in usage, and this is even more pronounced when it comes to transformational services, such as the use of mobile internet. While this may be a global problem, it is more pronounced in Africa where a majority of the women are poor and live in rural areas.”

She says there is research that shows that once female entrepreneurs secure funding for their start-ups, they tend to pay back their loans faster and their companies have higher revenues. “There is proof for the argument that women-led businesses offer better investment opportunities. Innovation plays a critical role in ensuring sustainable and scalable solutions to the challenge of gender inequality.”

Women are also natural born collaborators and activists, thinks Gloria, and may be catalysts spurring more inclusive innovation in African business. While many in the business world think innovation is some kind of one-size-fits-all solution. “The fact is, there is no defined path to innovation. What might be innovative for one organisation may be business-as-usual for another. It is all about the context of the innovation and the adaptability of an organisation to meeting the needs of its end users.”

She quotes the example of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who once said that often people didn’t know what they wanted until it was shown to them. 

“It follows then that you can’t create something new by asking people their opinions about what currently exists.” Gloria says that innovation is more of a process and a way of thinking. The focus should be on the customer or client and their needs. “It’s not only about thinking but acting too, then innovative outcomes will follow. This is what distinguishes innovation from creativity. While creativity is coming up with a new idea, innovation is about executing that idea. Both are crucial for successful innovation.”

For her current job, Gloria relocated to Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, the capital of Francophone West Africa, an exciting and fast-paced city. A normal days starts early for her, just after five o’clock, when she gets up to read, do research and have some quiet time for thinking before the day begins. She does not care much for watching TV and prefers books or going to the gym. There is often not enough time for either of these as she has full days at the office. But she does not mind working hard and is inspired to explore further ways of fostering innovation and pulling more women into the access, design and use of technology in Africa.

“I love my job and I really believe in the power of social activism to catalyse inclusive socio-economic transformation in Africa,” she says.

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