Everyone’s talking about it and everyone is promising it. You’re constantly surrounded by it, and sometimes you’re even worried by it — innovation. In the corporate world, innovation has become one of the most used words of the decade. Sit in any boardroom meeting and industry seminar and you’re likely to hear this term being used repeatedly, and if you’re in the technology space you don’t really have a choice. Innovation is the name of the game.

Many leaders are forgetting to ask what innovation truly means for their companies and audiences. More importantly, what measures do you put in place to guarantee your innovation is successfully driving your company forward, while creating a positive effect on the wider community?

To effect true change, these questions must be addressed head-on. If you do this successfully, not only will your business be at the top of its game, but your workforce will act as a force for good. This is where the concept of exponential innovation comes in.

Exponential innovation: redefining the value chain

When Uber was trying to solve the problem of taxi availability any time, anywhere, it invented a new concept and caused a paradigm shift. Now, every car on the road can potentially become a taxi, and the industry has changed forever. Airbnb in the hospitality industry, and Spotify and Netflix in the entertainment industry have done the same.

Similarly, in the payments industry, when tokenisation technology was introduced, it was a conceptual shift in thinking. Should card data be compromised, the data became useless to fraudsters. This not only helped to protect consumers’ financial data, but also boosted consumer confidence in an industry becoming increasingly digital.  

This is the very definition of exponential innovation: it goes above incremental innovation to reimagine the consumer experience and create efficiencies within the industry’s value chain. It challenges the status quo, looks at pain points with a different set of lenses, with the aim to eliminate them, not just reduce them.

It is necessary to approach your product or service from the viewpoint of the end-consumer. Every organisation is a business-to-consumer (B2C) organisation, not a business-to-business (B2B) or a business-to-government (B2G), because ultimately the work you do will have a considerable effect on individual lives. It is that impact that you must look to positively transform, to achieve exponential innovation.

Three-pronged approach to exponential innovation: build, acquire, collaborate


This is perhaps the most obvious one: design, invent and innovate. Building the right solutions requires looking internally and investing in those technologies and solutions that aim to disrupt existing technologies. In the era of the fourth industrial revolution, emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotic process automation, and blockchain are ruling the roost in terms of their use-cases for commercial purposes.

Smart Dubai recently stated that the number of things connected to the internet surpassed the number of humans and is expected to reach 20.4-billion by 2020. And emerging markets are set to contribute a large percentage to that number, with African Analysis predicting that the internet of things in SA will grow to 35-million by next year.

The boundaries of technologies continue to increase, and there has never been a better time in history for innovators to experiment, build and test new solutions.

When building new products, it is crucial for digital disrupters to always keep in mind the unique needs of each market in which they operate. In a world in which everything you want can be bespoke or artisanal, consumers have little time for services that don’t take their particular context or needs into consideration.

A few years ago, when Mastercard was designing quick response (QR) payment solutions for markets in Africa, the biggest discussion revolved around driving local adoption by working with the systems and infrastructure those markets already had in place.

In SA, this meant designing a QR payment solution — Masterpass — that was card-based. Why? Because in SA, 80% of the population already had a payment card. To use the service, consumers load any bank card into the secure Masterpass digital wallet on their mobile phones and scan a QR code displayed on a website or at the point of sale to make a payment.

When we looked elsewhere in Africa, many people didn’t have cards, so Mastercard designed a solution called Mastercard QR. This solution enables consumers to pay merchants directly from their mobile money or bank accounts using either a smartphone to scan a QR code or a feature phone to enter a text code at checkout.

The experience mimics a cash transaction as the consumer “pushes” payment to the merchant, which is received almost instantly. For merchants, Mastercard QR provides an affordable way to accept digital payments from a range of different payment providers (mobile money or banks) — even where traditional card payment infrastructure, or an electric grid, may not be present.


More fintech players mean more innovation – making the global digital payments space competitive enough that the next massive disruption is just around the corner

The rise of fintechs and start-ups is disrupting virtually every industry, not just the tech sector. This year, more than $1bn has been raised by African start-ups so far, with 83 deals exceeding $1m, according to VC4A.

Thanks to hyper-digitalisation, these startups have far greater access to consumers than was ever possible before.

It is important to view these players not as competition, but as potential strategic partners that can help you achieve exponential innovation.

A good example is Standard Bank’s acquisition of the majority stake in Firepay — the start-up behind leading mobile payments product SnapScan.

This is a clear indication of how a bank, which has already established brand recognition, customer trust and a distribution network, is benefiting from the agility and customer design capabilities of a fintech.

More fintech players mean more innovation — making the global digital payments space competitive enough that the next massive disruption is just around the corner.


Technology giants no longer work in silos, but rather encourage knowledge-sharing with each other and collaboration so that the world’s technologies can talk to each other. When Apple decided they wanted to launch the Apple Card, Mastercard didn’t shy away — we became its global payments network.

Similarly, many technology-based startups and consumer-facing apps only work thanks to established companies partnering with them. For example, popular apps such as Mr D and Uber enable consumers to purchase their food and travel any time, anywhere simply from their smartphones. For this to happen, several stakeholders need to work together.

The app itself needs to ensure that the consumer has an easy-to-understand user experience that allows them to make the purchase seamlessly. The telecom provider needs to ensure that a person has sufficient data capabilities to be able to process this payment via their phone. The payment provider needs to ensure it can seamlessly process the payment safely and securely. Collaboration is thus key in this process.

Overcoming the challenges

Trying to achieve exponential innovation comes with its fair share of challenges. In the payments industry for instance, our biggest concern is around misconceptions around security. Consumers take a lot of time to change behaviour and have concerns regarding cybersecurity and fraud. According to a 2018 Mastercard survey, 87% of South Africans believe that data breaches and hacks are the new normal and will likely happen to everyone.

Gaurang Shah. Picture: SUPPLIED/MASTERCARD
Gaurang Shah. Picture: SUPPLIED/MASTERCARD

The key to addressing this are the following:

  • Establish a dialogue involving knowledge-sharing with the government, and banking and technology partners to address these issues in a collaborative way.
  • Use technological tools to minimise fraud concerns and strengthen authenticity. Tokenisation and AI have been instrumental in achieving these goals.
  • Raise awareness on these issues to gain trust among consumers. Trust is the foundation of the digital economy, and consistent efforts must be made to ensure it.

Transforming industries, economies and communities 

Every company that aims to innovate will have its fair share of challenges while trying to achieve exponential innovation. But keeping the larger picture in mind and addressing these concerns is essential not just for a firm’s growth, but also its sustainability and survival.

By executing a three-pronged approach and leveraging technology to achieve exponential innovation, it is possible to transform industries, benefit economies, and positively affect and enrich communities.

The world is evolving at an exponential pace — disrupting technologies are changing the way people shop, travel, communicate, pay and much more. Exciting times lie ahead, providing companies are able to approach and harness innovation in the right way.

About the author: Gaurang Shah is senior vice president, product management, digital payments & labs for Middle East and Africa at Mastercard.

This article was paid for by Mastercard.


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