Africa can invent: Leapfrogging in unsuspected areas

Africa’s STI hopes

Africa is the current second biggest mobile market in the world. Mobile penetration rose from 1% in 2000 to 54% in 2012, surpassing the number of mobile users in the US, India or Europe. Africa applied its own genius and adapted the use of mobile phones to new areas. Mobile and e-initiatives are revolutionising a range of sectors. They help healthcare agents target out-of-reach beneficiaries; give farmers’ access to real time market information; create virtual classrooms or monitor elections. The development of apps tailored by Africans continues to flourish with innovations such as MafutaGo, Afritab to the VMK elikia smartphone driven by the desire to balance price and quality to match the limited purchasing power in the continent.

To boost innovation, entrepreneurship and R&D infrastructures, there are currently 90 specially supported projects called Hubs. These include Innovation Hubs, Technology Labs, Science & Technology Parks, incubators and accelerators in over 20 African countries. An additional incubator is mushrooming every fortnight. Examples include Liberia’s iLab, Nigeria’s Co-Creation Hub, concentrating on the use of social capital and technology, and Senegal’s ICT incubators. Soon Africa will also be host to technology cities such as in Konza, Kenya, now aptly termed the Silicon Savannah. Major IT companies such as IBM, Samsung, Google, PwC, Nokia/Siemens and Huawei, among others have hosted labs or African headquarters in Kenya.

South Africa’s Science and Technology Park covers sectors that include IT, biosciences and green technologies. Industrial mining is one of the many focus areas of Botswana’s Innovation Hub. Another example is agricultural research and biosciences, the focus areas of the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute Hub. There is also investment in nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals and new materials.

The continent is also testing sophisticated technologies. Examples include: Joule, an electric car; the Ahrlac, the first defence-orientated aircraft to be made and assembled in Africa; LifanX-60, a sports car designed for Africa being assembled in Ethiopia; as well as a growing aerospace industry in Morocco and Tunisia. Like Toyota in its foundation some of these ambitions are not being taken note of. But it is a beginning that can be essential for mastering the innovation curve.

Creating high-tech, scientific and innovative industries attract skilled human capital. There are indications that many of Africa’s growing economies such as Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana have significantly increased the retention of educated workers. The next step is to drive skilled diasporas back. Similarities can be drawn with the creation of science parks in several countries in Asia, including India, which triggered the return of former migrant engineers and researchers trained abroad because of the story of market growth.

Why do African’s still have to go abroad for research and training when sophisticated innovations are emerging on the continent? A strong relationship exists between the strength of a country’s higher education system and its overall ability to innovate. Secondary education in Africa has expanded considerably in recent years, according to UNESCO’s Global Education Digest 2011, but is still behind all other regions in the world. A large gap remains in the quality of the education provided. Few African universities offer advanced degrees and research programmes responsive to the knowledge needs of the economy, not to mention that the overall cost of higher education is prohibitive.

What’s next?

First, measures such as improving human resource training to offer technical skills for example, as well as promoting links between businesses and educational institutes are valuable for inserting Africa into the higher end of global value chains. Lessons can be drawn from Brazil’s success over the last four decades. Approximately 80% of the top Brazilian universities have at least one incubator, and many are involved in the establishment of science and technology parks, creating closer links with industry across the academic world.

Second, Africa’s STI advances have to face a more regulated space than others had when they made their jump. Intellectual property rights have evolved so much that today they are anything but friendly to new entrants. Protecting indigenous knowledge systems, practices, innovations and technologies is no longer enough. A much higher ambition is necessary to insert Africa into the global value chains and propel the continent to acquire new technologies.

Third, a number of conditions will determine whether Africa can lead a technological revolution. These include adequate financing, strengthening links with research and academic institutions, access to qualified human resources, and access to reliable infrastructure such as communications, energy and transport. Without adequate infrastructure, further technological and scientific developments are simply not possible.

Fourth, Africa’s problems are not unique. To compete, participate and be recognised in the global economy, STI in Africa must be made a prominent focus of national development plans across the continent and progress must be made to improve R&D investment, efficiency and policy coherence. Global financial institutions and bilateral development agencies must also devise more comprehensive strategies to integrate STI into their development efforts. The success of China can be attributed to the priority given by its national development strategy to policies aimed at enhancing long-term growth prospects, including policies on technology, human capital and institutional development.

Finally, to fully harness the opportunities before it and to build on its remarkable achievements so far, it is essential for Africa to go beyond the sum total of individual capacities. It must build on existing capacities, assets and the ability of its people and institutions, sure, but above all it will only make it if it integrates.

Carlos Lopes is executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. The article was first published on his blog.