Business Unusual

How flavour created the modern economy

(The Money Show is brought to you by Nedbank. See Money Differently.)

Humans have used spice for thousands of years. Many originate in South East Asia with traders helping spread the desire for the dried plant parts throughout the world. It was costly and arduous to transport and so remained expensive despite being prized and valued.

Spices can have a preserving effect on food although they have no nutritional value. Salt also preserves food and was for a time highly prized too, but salt could be found anywhere near the sea or mined in old sea beds. Spices specifically pepper, cloves and cinnamon came from only specific regions.

Initially, the trade from Asia to Europe was via India and Venice. African trade spanned most of East and North Africa with Arab traders and their famed camel caravans.

More than just preserving food, spice enhanced its flavour and rather than a delicacy favoured only by some, it was sought after by everyone.

A Portuguese ship that sunk just before reaching port in Lisbon in 1606 saw locals looking to salvage what they could of the ship’s treasure - pepper. At the time it was as prized as gold.

Portugal was one of the first European nations to break the Venetian monopoly on spices. Vasco da Gama in sailing around Africa created a new trade route to buy spices (pepper in particular) at a better rate than before. The Dutch too sent missions to secure spice consignments from the East and started not just a boom in the spice trade but also the start of colonisation. A tragic chapter in human history. It also led to the founding of companies and the adoption of insurance.

The current spice is the smartphone

The point of raising this is that we assume big businesses are founded on solving big issues or addressing serious problems, but in many cases, the real money is made from supplying the things we want not the things we need.

Stephen Johnson’s book Wonderland lists the many instances of innovation being led by things we do for fun, and it is not likely to change any time soon.

A contemporary example is the smartphone, we may believe its success came from solving a communication problem, but if you consider what drives someone to get a new phone, it is not the quality of the calls you can make. It is the quality of the camera, games, and speed to access social platforms or watch videos that are key.

The future spice may be AI companions

At the moment AI is held out as the next big thing to give businesses an edge in making sense of their vast piles of data, but AI is likely to grow thanks to something less serious - company. Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google assistant are all new ways to search using AI. We are getting used to them and in time might want to get to know them better too. Companies building AI assistants with personalities will see increased use as we become more comfortable with our devices. It won't be too much like the movie "Her", but it will move that way.

However, for us to avoid repeating the mistakes of the social media age by choosing to use free platforms in exchange for giving away our data, we should look at paid versions sooner to both create sustainability and avoid having even more personal data being used to manipulate us. Another model may be a version created by a government. It is unlikely to be a popular choice although countries such as China may see it succeed. If done right it could revolutionise democracy, providing a very representative sample of how citizens are experiencing the services and policies of the state.

You may hold the view that it is a bad idea to confide in a machine and you may be correct, but soon a compassionate and supportive listening machine may serve the same purpose as spice did to add flavour to our lives.

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