Innovation is not an accident.

Kurt Richter analyzes the success of the innovations of The Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) to fight COVID-19.

I want to congratulate The Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) on their production of two research-based innovations to fight COVID-19 that recently attracted external investment.  The United Nations agreed to purchase 40 touchless handwashing stations developed by Charles Makamo, a MUST faculty member in engineering. The same week, the Malawi Ministry of Health requested MUST to license them to use the COVID-19 case tracking app that was developed by a group of students.  

Either one of these innovations is a huge success for MUST.  How is it possible that MUST so quickly produced two innovations to fight COVID-19?

The short answer is that it is due to the people at MUST.  The longer answer is that MUST deliberately built a “culture of innovation” and took the risk to invest in building the capacity of their faculty and staff to produce innovation. 

Innovation needs Practice

Since December 2018, MUST has been practicing HOW to innovate while working to build their culture of innovation. USAID awarded to Michigan State University a $1 million, two-year, project called the Innovation Scholars Program.  

Individual MUST faculty have been practicing how to innovate by working to design and implement small- scale research-based innovations to solve local development problems.  The focus of their practice was how to weave Human- Centered Design into research that solves a local problem. 

However, if faculty who were equipped with newfound skills attempted to be innovative in an environment that did not support or recognize innovation, they would quickly become frustrated and stop working to be innovative.  To combat this, MUST administrators were also engaged throughout the ISP project to identify how they are working as individuals and as a group to create the culture of innovation at MUST. Administrators need to practice creating policy and procedures that support innovation for the same reasons that faculty need to practice converting research into innovation.  

Innovation practice for faculty and administrators has to happen at same time and in the same system. Getting these groups to practice together is further strengthened when both groups are focused on the goal of improving the lives of Malawians.

Innovation needs a Purpose

MUST Senior Leadership has asked their faculty to produce innovations since the University was founded.  This push from above created a focus on innovation across the institution.  The ISP stepped into this environment and helped faculty to focus their energy on working to produce innovation for Malawi. The innovation could impact either local communities, a wider region across areas of Malawi, or the country as a whole. The MUST ISP program deliberately did not focus on trying to produce innovations that were scalable to areas outside of Malawi.  Instead, it focused on practicing innovation at a scale that the scholars were comfortable operating in and could easily access.  Lowering the barriers to entry creates later opportunities for co-creating grander solutions.

Innovation needs a Place 

As the faculty and administrators began producing innovations and a culture of innovation, it became important to create a unit what would support moving innovation from idea to reality to solve local problems.  Institutions need the capacity to shepherd innovations from idea to commercialization. As a result of the ISP, MUST created the Innovation Garage to (1) nurture innovations in MUST via workshops and training; (2) connect MUST to the private sector; and (3) make MUST-created innovations easy to access by the public and private sector.  

The Innovation Garage at MUST has become the place in MUST that lowers the barriers for MUST faculty to produce innovation because the Garage has a clear process that leads to innovation. 

Innovation is a Process

The mantra of the ISP is “Innovation is a process not a product”.  MUST has been working with professional guides and faculty coaches from MSU and LUANAR for the past two years to produce research and innovation that drives local development. MUST’s success shows that when individuals are focused on a single purpose, equipped with the right skills and working in an environment where innovation is supported and celebrated, great things can happen.  


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