NUL has a quest for innovation, but what is innovation?

Originally Published by NUL Research and Innovations


We at the NUL Research and Innovations sometimes get into a bit of a fight with our friends and foes over the ever elusive word, “innovation.” That is because most people understand innovation to mean invention or creativity. They are like, “what is innovative about this?” while they are trying to say, “what is creative or novel about this?”

True, the word innovation is itself problematic because it means many things to many people. If you are a lawyer, coming up with a clever way to put legal arguments may be “innovative.” If you are an engineer, inventing a new material that can clean itself is “innovative.”

So no single person can claim to hold the only definition to the word innovation, even more so now that it is becoming a buzzword. You should not be surprised by this. For instance, we all know the word “soil” but no one really knows what soil is. Even more bizarre, we know the word “love” and few people will even try to define it.

The more common the word, the harder it is to define.

That is why we look at innovation from our viewpoint here at NUL Research and Innovations.

So what is innovation?

It is taking different ideas together to solve specific problems of the society in a “new” way. Let us dissect this statement. We start with “different ideas.” Did you know that there is no single person in the whole world who truly knows how a car is made? Henry Ford didn’t know, Karl Benz didn’t know, Kiichiro Toyoda didn’t know, and of course, Elon Musk doesn’t know.

That is because if you study the history of your car, you will be dumbfounded when they tell you how many “brains” have contributed their ideas to make that car. You have chemists, physicists, biologists, chemical engineers, technicians, lawyers (odd as it may sound), psychologists, mathematicians, designers and before we forget, mechanical engineers—all professions you can imagine.

Each of these guys contributed mainly what they know to the car, and each of these guys is nearly just as clueless as you are concerning other parts and phases of the car and its development. Even the guy(s) who design the whole assembly line may not even “know” the material used to make a plastic panel.

When you see a car moving there, don’t be surprised if they tell you that a million people directly or indirectly contributed to that innovation, which is a car.

Think about this, when the Americans wanted to go to the moon, nearly 400,000 people were involved in that project at its peak. 400,000 people trying to take man to the moon!

That is not invention. That is innovation, coordinating the efforts of 400,000 people with a single goal of placing man’s foot on the moon. Of course there have been hundreds of inventions used in those efforts, but those inventions were not, on their own, innovations. The innovation was the combined effort of taking man to the moon!


So the primary part of innovation is collaboration! It is as simple as that.

Then there is “solving a specific societal problem.” The problem could be that we need to move from here to there fast. Our horses are no longer fast enough. Notice this. Someone may have invented a rubber. Good! But that is not innovation. But when that rubber is used to make tires in the “combined effort” of making a car so that man can move faster, that is innovation.

Okay, so what is in this last part, “in a new way”? Well, in a “new way” is highly subjective because newness is itself debatable. Three to four thousand years ago, Solomon wrote in the Bible, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Well, most of the things that are called “inventions” have already been perfected in nature eons ago (compare an aeroplane to a bird and you will be amazed at how a bird beats an aeroplane a million times in everything).

But this “newness” is the most contentious. We put a story about a “new product” and critics jump in, “this is not new, in fact it was discovered in the 1940’s.” Some even go to an extreme extent of suggesting we shouldn’t be producing something that was done before. “You can’t produce chickens because there is nothing new about producing chickens.”

Newness in our case, can sometimes mean, “hey guys, look, this is Lesotho’s first car assembly line ever made by scientists and engineers at the NUL.” Listen, we couldn’t care less about the fact that this is not the first assembly line in the world. The fact is, it is the first line in Lesotho and this is something, wait for it, NEW to the people of Lesotho, an own car assembly line!

That is why we couldn’t care less about the fact that you are already eating Danan and Falamat yogurt (our spelling could be wrong). For as long as that Danan and Falamat are made elsewhere, and our buying them erodes our millions to that land, we will bring Sebabatso for you right here in Lesotho—that is innovation.

Can you imagine if the Japanese Toyota did not make cars because a car was “invented” by Henry Ford in America? Then Toyota wouldn’t be the world’s first automobile manufacturer to produce more than 10 million vehicles per year which it has done since 2012.

Today, most of us use smartphones and tablets with either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. It is debatable as to who did it first, but what we can’t debate is that one did not shy away from doing it because the other was already doing it.

NUL’s innovation follows this strategy, (1) product development in the labs (2) business incubation of promising products and (3) mass production of incubated businesses.

Mark our words. If NUL keeps this version of innovation where every success is celebrated, where even taking sweets to the market is considered innovation, mark our words, THE SCHOOL WILL SOON BE A FORCE TO RECKON WITH IN THE REGION AND THE REST OF AFRICA.