HomeBusiness DigestThe Human Capital Telescope: Innovation: Lessons from Southern Africa

Gerrard rules out ‘WAG circus’

SRI was developed after carefully observing how nature optimises processes of rice growth. Interestingly, Zimbabwe is home to a forgotten innovation that is also leveraged on adapting the processes of nature  — Eastgate building complex’s cooling system. A world’s first, Eastgate’s cooling system was adapted from the cooling processes operating in an anthill. At its completion, Eastgate’s anthill-inspired cooling system was said to have substantially shaved energy costs.  Turning to nature to inspire low-cost innovations is a route Zimbabwean firms should consider. Cross-collaboration among knowledge disciplines becomes a must.

Back to SRI. By leveraging on natural biological processes, SRI succeeded in lowering the cost of cultivating rice by doing two things. First, SRI completely eliminated the need for some key inputs traditionally needed in growing rice. Second, SRI reduced the quantum of some key resources. It scored the singular distinction of increasing the yields of rice using simple agricultural techniques.

This article advances the argument that SRI provides a blue-print for innovation that African entrepreneurs can employ to lower production costs and overcome cynicism and scepticism from the networks of incumbents whose business models are threatened by low-cost innovators.

SRI’s current phenomenal success is evidenced by its widespread adoption in 28 countries, mainly in the Asia-Pacific region –– China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia, being the most notable.  In fact, this innovation, birthed in Madagascar in 1983, is so revolutionary that for two decades, some of the world’s leading agricultural scientists confederated and pooled their intellectual capital to discredit it.


Leveraging on their high-standing in the scientific community, this coterie of leading scientists, led by world-renowned scientists from the world-famous Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), they excoriated claims of massive productivity gains emanating from the agricultural innovation, labelling it a result of “poor record keeping and unscientific thinking”.


That an innovation of humble African origins courts intense controversy and draws such deep emotions is testament to its revolutionary game-changing credentials.

The apprehension occasioned by the SRI runs deeper than mere protection of academic pride. Understandably this uneasiness centres on the massive disruptive effect of the SRI innovation on agro-based business models and industries that were developed following the Green Revolution of the 1960s. The Green Revolution refers to the period beginning the second half of the 20th Century that boosted the world’s food security through increased agricultural productivity.


Staple grains in particular increased multi-fold as a result of the development of high-yielding grain varieties in conjunction with the use of synthetic fertilisers and plant-disease fighting chemicals. The result of the Green Revolution was a dramatic rise in global food production, especially in the then developing nations of Asia. 

Observe and connect

The first lesson from Madagascar is that ordinary citizens can make up for lack of resources by effectively employing the power of observation to come up with low-cost innovations. With critical areas such as  education, health and housing competing for funds, African states find themselves in a hard spot to justify budgetary allocations for research and development. Developing countries can still use down-to-earth methods inspired by simple observations to come up with low-cost innovations.

In the case of Madagascar, the simple skill of observation was central in unlocking the ideas that were foundational to the innovation that became SRI. Observation is recognised as one of the four discovery skills employed by game-changing innovators to help them effectively utilise the primary innovation skill called associative thinking. 


The other three assistive discovery processes are experimenting, networking and questioning. The year 1983 brings vivid memories of the devastating drought that gripped the nations of Southern Africa, including the then fledgling nation of Zimbabwe. Scientists would in later years tell us that this devastating drought was due to a meteorological phenomenon called the El Nino effect. Madagascar was not spared. As is the case today, many of its peasants subsisted on rice.

Enter a priest. Yes, a priest. Henri de Laulanie, a priest with an agricultural background who came from France to Madagascar in the 1960s made an unusual observation. While he was travelling in rural Madagascar, his eyes rested on some rice plants that were doing exceedingly well despite there being a debilitating drought. He drew closer to conduct an even more careful observation. What he discovered startled him. The rice plants had more tillers (side shoots) than the “normal plants”. That means that these plants would yield more during a devastating drought! On further inspection, de Laulanie discerned that the plants exhibited an uncharacteristic vigorous root growth.


He hypothesised that the increased productivity of the rice plant during the drought was due to the rice fields not being flooded. Traditionally, rice is grown in flooded paddy fields. The priest-turned-agriculturalist piloted experiments in rural Madagascar, in which three new processes of growing rice were tested: Not flooding rice fields, increasing space between rice plants, and growing rice plants in singles as opposed to the traditional method of clumping them. The results of de Laulanie’s experiments were astounding.

Productivity through simplicity

Findings from the rural area of Ranomafana showed yields increasing from two tonnes per hectare to between four tonnes and eight tonnes per hectare. That is a yield increase of between 100% and 200%.  Prior to that rice growers had been planting 200 kg of seed  per hectare. With de Laulanie’s methods, only between 5kg and 8kg of rice seed was needed, representing more than 90% reduction in seed requirements. On the water input front, a reduction of 25% to 50% was achieved. On further experimentation, de Laulanie found that manure could completely replace the need for artificial fertilisers without compromising the high yields..

A second lesson from Madagascar is that African countries should strive to compete on simple and affordable solutions that advanced nations consider inferior and therefore not worth their attention.  Western countries only began to take notice of Madagascar’s innovation when scientific controversies surrounding SRI were brought to the fore by the International Rice Research Institute.


The methods of SRI were by all accounts too simple to be true, especially to the IRRI who were considered the world’s foremost authorities on rice cultivation. Matters were not helped by the fact that the astounding innovations came from a non-expert from Africa, and were later popularised by another non-expert with a political science background. 


Naturally, when non-experts boldly asserted that they had discovered a method to increase the yields of rice without the sophistry of rice genetics and artificial chemical assistance, serious resistance was legitimately expected.  SRI, in its simplicity, threatens to disrupt fertiliser manufactures and seed makers. This underlines the potential economic power of low-cost innovations inspired by simplicity.

Madagascar’s SRI and Zimbabwe’s almost forgotten Eastgate’s anthill-inspired innovation may well possibly point to Africa’s most underrated source of innovations that can make the continent win the global competitiveness game — low cost innovations inspired by observing nature in action.


Chulu is a management consultant and business strategist. Let’s discuss at brettchulu@consultant.com

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