An innovator combines three good products into a new service. Ben Casnocha is author of My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley. This article appears in the November issue of eJournal USA, “Roots of Innovation.”
Sometimes innovation sprouts from the combination of several existing technologies. Working together, they can form something new where the sum is greater than the individual parts.
Rael Lissoos made a mark on his native South Africa taking this very approach. He produced a low-cost telecom network by combining three independent pieces of innovation: cheap Wi-Fi routers, open-source software that connects routers to form a meshed network (extending the range of single networks), and Wi-Fi phone handsets (a phone that can place calls if it’s connected to a Wi-Fi connection).
Lissoos set up the router-software-Wi-Fi handset model — called “Village Telco” — in the poor township of Orange Farm, South Africa. First, he made sure the Wi-Fi routers worked and Internet access flowed freely. Then he gave Wi-Fi phone handsets to the villagers. Ta-da! Villagers now had free access to make and receive telephone calls.
But Lissoos is an entrepreneur, not just a philanthropist. His company, Dabba, connected the local village networks to the countrywide phone network. Then he bought prepaid phone cards and sold them to villagers in pay-as-you-go form. Because the calls originate on his Wi-Fi phone network with costs much lower than normal, Lissoos can undercut other phone card sellers on price. Using the inexpensive phone card, a villager can call anyone in the country.
“What we are doing will either encourage the telecom companies to bring their prices down, or we’ll continue to work toward getting Dabba to reach as many people as possible,” Lissoos said last year after being honored at the Berlin Forum on Social Engineering for his work. “Either way, the right people will benefit.”
To aid expansion, Dabba has partnered with Cisco, the Silicon Valley network manufacturer, to help roll out new wireless networks in different parts of South Africa and run training programs on how to configure them.
Like any innovation that disrupts existing ways of doing business — in this case, the South African telecom market — Dabba has riled existing mobile carriers and received scrutiny from the country’s communications regulator. But new combinations of technology that lower costs and increase access usually beat out challengers, even when those challengers are mighty government regulators.
Rael Lissoos saw innovation in South Africa by dreaming of new ways to use old things. He’s not alone. In fact, consultant Frans Johansson wrote a book on this strategy titled The Medici Effect. “When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures,” Johansson wrote, “you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas.”