Innovation through the lens of necessity and opportunity: a recap of our final day at Davos 2020

January 24, 2020 James Hayward

Innovation springs from many places. Throughout the course of history, we’ve seen innovators take chances on greenfield opportunities. Their solutions solve problems that society didn’t know existed and they change the world by doing so. Yet more often than not, it’s necessity that drives innovation. 

But as we move deeper into the 21st century, have the forces driving innovation changed? Is innovation itself becoming a necessity, as we wrestle with our increasingly turbulent world to find new ways to solve the issues we face today, without causing further challenges further down the line?

On the final day in the Tradeshift CNBC Sanctuary at Davos, we set about answering these questions, hosting two panels exploring the drivers of innovation.

First up, Keith Bradsher, Shanghai Bureau Chief at The New York Times, was joined by Anna E. Banks, Chief Marketing Officer, Fair Trade USA; Gert Sylvest, Co-founder, GM Tradeshift Frontiers; Marc Engel, Chief Supply Chain Officer, Unilever; and Nicola Gryczka, CEO, Gastromotiva, to explore whether there is a need to apply technology to transform our food supply.  

Then, Sanjeev Khagram, Director General and Dean at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, moderated an all-star panel exploring the nature of innovation in Africa and beyond. He was joined by Landry Signe, Professor & Founding Co-Director, Thunderbird's Fourth Industrial Revolution and Globalization 4.0 Initiative & Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution; Mikkel Hippe Brun, Co-founder and SVP for APAC, Tradeshift, and Onyeche Tifase, CEO, Siemens Nigeria.

Here are the highlights from our final day at Davos 2020.

Keeping it simple 

“For smallholder farmers to succeed they need to maximize the money they make per hectare of land they own,” says Marc Engel, Chief Supply Chain Officer at Unilever. “And technology can provide them with the basic information they need around market prices, weather conditions and current processes to achieve this.” For Engle, this simple information that larger farms take for granted is transformative. “We don’t need to overcomplicate it,” he adds. “In fact, when working with smallholder farmers often the simplest solutions are the most effective.”  

The power of community

Anna E. Banks, Chief Marketing Officer, Fair Trade USA, agrees that technology can be transformative, but she laments the lack of real progress. The reason, in her view, is that companies aren’t working together. “There are new companies with great technology, then there are those traditional brands that have had relationships with farmers for years,” she says. “These companies need to come together, collaborate, and build simple but cohesive solutions that the average farmer can use every day. If this doesn't happen we’ll create another generation of winners and losers, and the losers will be the smallholder farmers.”

Building an agricultural network 

For Gert Sylvest, Co-founder, Tradeshift & GM Tradeshift Frontiers, we should be thinking about using technology to break down linear supply chains and build connected agricultural ecosystems. “When we do this,” he said, “we can start building new ways to transfer information and capital that’ll stimulate everyone in the system.” 

Putting female farmers at the center

Globally, 43% of farmers are women. “This isn’t a workforce,” says Nicola Gryczka, CEO at Gastromotiva. “This is a force for change.” She explains how studies have proven that women farmers are eager to try new things and to leverage technology in their work. So they're the catalyst to transform farming. “By putting women farmers at the center and empowering them, we’ll drive the innovation that’ll change the whole industry.”

Spotlight on African innovation

Entrepreneurship and innovation aren’t the first words people associate with Africa. Yet, as Landry Signe, Professor & Founding Co-director at Thunderbird's Fourth Industrial Revolution and Globalization 4.0 Initiative explains, Africa is alive with innovation. “We’re leading the world in mobile, we’ve got over 600 technology hubs, and structural reforms are making Africa an easier and more appealing place to do business. All this, combined with the entrepreneurial spirit of our young generation means we’re outperforming the rest of the world when it comes to innovation, despite the challenges we face.”

Changing the narrative around Africa

“There is opportunity across Africa,” says Onyeche Tifase, CEO, Siemens Nigeria. “Yes, we have challenges, just like every other continent, but I’d like to see the narrative change from the outside world coming to help Africa, to the world seeing Africa as an opportunity.” In terms of what’ll help this shift, Tifase says more common standards, regulations, transparency will help bring investment, and so will further investment in infrastructure. “But most importantly it’s about using technology empowering the young people transforming the African continent.” 

What can Silicon Valley learn from African innovation?

Can Silicon Valley learn anything from African innovation? Yes, definitely, says Mikkel Hippe Brun, Co-founder and SVP for APAC, Tradeshift. “When I look at Silicon Valley, I see the companies trying to solve lots of first world problems, like how to charge my Tesla,” he says. “But there are arguably more pressing frontline issues around housing and equal opportunity that must be solved. African innovators have solved many of these problems and I think Silicon Valley can learn from this to solve for the people that need it the most.” 

That’s a wrap

As we lower the curtain on a fantastic week in the Tradeshift CNBC Sanctuary at Davos we’d like to thank all our moderators and panelists for taking time out to join us. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing videos highlights from Tradeshift Davos and more articles centered around the theme of curiosity at the edge. 

Make sure you subscribe to our blog to be the first to receive all our post-Davos content.


About the Author

James Hayward

James is a Senior Content Marketing Manager at Tradeshift, focused on crafting compelling stories that provide supply chain professionals with unique insights and actionable advice on how to take their organization to the next level. A journalist by trade, James was previously the Global Editor at Treasury Today magazine.

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