Infomercial Culture | UNDERGRADUATE FELLOWS
Updated: Sep 2, 2019
When I hear the word “infomercial,” images of people failing at daily activities and the enthusiastic voice of Billy Mays offering an unbeatable deal on Oxiclean immediately fill my mind. I would be willing to bet that many people from the U.S. have a similar experience. And who in the U.S. doesn’t know exactly where the “as seen on TV” section of his or her grocery store is? Whether you are a proud owner of a Snuggie (as I am) or you change the channel anytime an infomercial starts, you have to admit that the U.S. has a culture that encourages and rewards innovation and invention at any level.
In partnership with Innovation Education International, I have been working to teach the process of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research (WISER) in Muhuru Bay, Kenya. I have 89 students, and my co-instructor is Teacher Hellen who teaches Business Studies at WISER. As we started leading sessions with the newly formed Entrepreneurship Club, I began to see how differences between my cultural background from suburban Colorado and the students’ backgrounds from rural Kenya could affect the curriculum.
When I was a kid, anytime I would say something along the lines of, “there should be a better way to…” or “they should make a product that…,” my parents would always respond with, “why don’t you invent it?”. Without my knowledge, my parents were helping me learn to identify needs and brainstorm solutions to those needs. I was also inundated with examples of new inventions from flip-flops with towels on the bottom for drying floors to 3D printers that can print kidneys. Everywhere I turned, I was encouraged to innovate and thus to invent. As I looked around WISER and Muhuru Bay, I didn’t see these examples or this encouragement, and so I assumed that innovation and invention were just not as highly valued in this culture. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to teach innovation, needs finding, and brainstorming of solutions to students in an effective way because of this difference.
I wasn’t entirely wrong to be worried about the success of the curriculum. The needs-finding process revealed some vast differences in what is thought of when we say “need.” While I would have expected students in the U.S. to state small, personal needs (ex. a way to keep my chair from falling over when I tip it back), WISER students identified huge, national needs like a need for better border security or the need for a better way to get goods and services for businesses in Kenya. As the goal was to have students generate a feasible business idea, revisions of the identified needs were necessary. I was starting to become concerned about how to guide them in the direction I wanted them to go without just imposing my way of thinking.
On the night after the needs finding entrepreneurship session, the girls invited me to join them for Saturday night entertainment. Some weeks they clear the cafeteria for dancing, but this week they were planning to watch a movie. When I walked into the cafeteria, it had been transformed into a theatre. Two tables with a bench in front of them had been used as a base for a third table and accompanying bench. Between the two benches and three tables, there were four tiers of seating, providing the perfect way for dozens of girls to gather in the cafeteria to watch Freaky Friday. I had seen this set up last year, but I never thought much of it.
The next day, I noticed the walls around the gate of WISER and thought about how the broken glass bottles cemented along the top would certainly deter me from trying to climb over them. As soda comes in glass bottles here, broken glass is abundant and inexpensive in Muhuru Bay. Much like the movie theatre set-up, I had seen the walls dozens of times but never devoted any time to thinking about the design. Inside the WISER campus, I saw the kids of WISER teachers running across the field or playing on their doorsteps each afternoon. From a distance, some of their toys look just like Fischer Price cars. The car bodies are made out of empty cooking oil or liquid soap bottles, and the wheels come from the lids. Some toy cars even have the lids mounted on a plastic rod that can rotate so the wheels spin as the kids sprint from one end of campus to the other.
These are just a few of the examples of this different breed of innovation that is unceremoniously practiced at WISER (and in Muhuru Bay more broadly). This type of innovation rejects the ideas that each item has one use and that innovation means inventing something brand new. These are both ideas that I believe the U.S. has embraced enthusiastically. We have a product (and an app) for everything. With one click on Amazon, you can be the proud owner of a lotion warmer, automatic cereal dispenser, bug vacuum, slippers with lights on the toes, and a spinning brush just for cleaning golf clubs. You can even purchase a banana slicer, but I recommend you read the hilarious reviews first. It seems that if we think of a new need, our first response is to think of a new product instead of trying to re-purpose old resources in a new way.
Despite my selection of examples, it is undeniable that some remarkable inventions have come from the United States. I don’t mean to suggest that the U.S. spirit of innovation is not beneficial but only to recognize how arrogant I was to think that this type of innovation was universal and the best type. Because what I saw around me in Muhuru Bay didn’t meet my narrow definition of innovation, my first instinct was to assume that people here didn’t practice innovation. I was completely wrong. Fortunately, I have several more weeks here, and I hope that this new perspective will allow me to finally see more of the remarkable innovations and inventions used here every day.
In my first week in Muhuru Bay, I read the book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book, Gladwell mentions a type of intelligence test in which the participant is asked to list possible uses for common items such a brick and a blanket. To score well on the test, the participant must list many uses and the uses must be interesting and creative. If you had asked me when I first read the book to guess how I would do compared to the average WISER student in my entrepreneurship sessions, I may have been humble enough to say that we would score about the same. Now? Well, let’s just say I have a lot to learn.