Indigenous Entrepreneurs

From time immemorial, traditional knowledge (TK) has served as the source of livelihoods for people. “Traditional” knowledge, however, is anything but ancient. Increasingly, TK is also becoming a source of inspiration and innovation for many entrepreneurs and businesses in the informal economy, health care sector, fashion industry, recreation and entertainment industries, hospitality, agriculture, and more. TK is becoming the raw material or base resource in building niche businesses and creating economic opportunities. These innovations are also increasingly taking into account modern technologies, especially information and communication technologies (ICTs). Such technologies are crucial in scaling up TK and, consequently, the economic empowerment of traditional knowledge stakeholders.

The relationship between TK, IP, and innovation has been a focal point of Open AIR’s research. In our companion publications, Innovation and Intellectual Property: Collaborative Dynamics in Africa (Cape Town: UCT Press, 2014), and Knowledge and Innovation in Africa: Scenarios for the Future (Cape Town: Open AIR, 2013), we recognised the power that TK has to drive sustainable economic growth.  We also observed that those who practice or rely on TK for their livelihoods have developed unique, nuanced approaches to knowledge management. In this research, our findings showed that,

“absolute openness is not required to facilitate knowledge-sharing; and at the same time, nor does IP protection inevitably preclude access to everyone but the individual proprietor. Situated in this middle ground are various forms of IP that can be used as tools to facilitate collaboration within or across communities of many kinds.” (2014, p. 378)

Armed with the insights from our previous research, we are ready and excited to dig deeper into the issues surrounding TK. Our previous studies highlighted the potential of knowledge management practices and benefits of TK in formal economic settings. New research will yield a deeper understanding of the role technologies might play in scaling up TK-based businesses, as well as show us how to design practical policy frameworks and business strategies to better realise the full potential of TK.

While technology assists in the scaling up of local knowledge and innovation, it may not always lead to institutionalisation or sustainable local entrepreneurship. For this reason, we are interested in understanding the driving factors in, and community experiences with, scaling up local knowledge production. Open AIR will examine:

  • How local communities have used ICTs and other technologies to scale up local knowledge;
  • How other entities have also used technologies to access local knowledge;
  • Who are the beneficiaries and losers in these processes;
  • Who are the new stakeholders in these scaling up scenarios; and
  • What lessons can be learned for local entrepreneurship on the continent.

In addition, we are also interested in finding the synergies and differences in experiences between African local communities and their Canadian Aboriginal counterparts, especially regarding knowledge production and governance at the indigenous and local community levels.

Open AIR’s research will focus on how knowledge is used in the economic interests of indigenous communities, and how such knowledge has been deployed outside these communities in connection with establishing entrepreneurial businesses. This cluster of case studies will also provide further examples of how Canadians – both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – can benefit with lessons from, and not just for, African indigenous communities.


The Open African Innovation Research Partnership