What should be at the top of the African agenda for science, technology and innovation in 2013?

Key Points

  • Africa’s most pressing problems, namely agriculture, health and education, will define the continent’s science agenda; this agenda goes hand-in-hand with supporting entrepreneurs and innovators and higher education
  • Africa’s latecomer status to science, technology and innovation is an advantage because the continent can absorb and disseminate in a few short years the knowledge that other continents took decades to accumulate
  • Even if funded from outside of Africa, research has to be locally owned if it is to avoid being research for research’s sake

Synopsis

When it comes to science and technology, Africa has the opportunity to build up in a few short years the knowledge that other countries took decades to accumulate, according toCalestous Juma, Director, Science Technology and Globalization, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, USA. Juma said that Brazil and India have done the same thing, except that Africa has available a greater body of knowledge and a global research culture committed to openness, sharing and collaboration. African governments now need to institute mechanisms to search for the relevant existing knowledge and disseminate it throughout the economy to build up human capacity, particularly in engineering.

Juma said, however, that Africa finds itself in a situation where its national research institutions do not teach, so knowledge is not disseminated where it can be used. At the same time, he said, the continent has universities that teach but have neither the funding nor the incentive to do research, so graduates leave with outdated knowledge. He said the solution is for governments to bring research and teaching under one roof, and build new-generation universities by using research institutions within the technical ministries to teach.

Frans van Houten, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman, Royal Philips Electronics, Netherlands; a Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum on Africa, said the most important thing now is for countries on the continent to develop a science agenda and organize around it. He suggested that it should focus on the grand challenges tied to health, food and access to energy and electricity. He added that the continent’s innovation should be built around people and solving their problems. Globally, companies are realizing the importance of innovation at the local level, so governments that may not have funds to go it alone have the opportunity to partner with corporations, van Houten said. And governments should not be afraid to say what they want out of the partnership. From such partnerships, he said, comes the possibility that Africa-developed products and solutions will be exported for use elsewhere.

Gunilla Carlsson, Minister of International Development Cooperation of Sweden, agreed that, for a number years now, her country has followed a similar approach to funding research globally. “Our aid asks the nations: what do you want to solve? We have to start with what kind of problem we’d like to solve,” she said. She added that research has to be locally owned if it is to avoid being research for research’s sake.

Claver Gatete, Minister of Finance and Economic Planning of Rwanda, said his country has charted a vision to turn the country into a knowledge-based economy with a strong services sector supported by industry and agriculture. He said the country views the problem in a comprehensive way and, because of that, science and technology are beginning to permeate every aspect of Rwanda’s value chain. Without this comprehensive view, he said, Rwanda would not have been able to achieve the economic growth it has in recent years, nor would it be able to sustain it, as it looks set to do.

On supporting entrepreneurs, van Houten said that what governments and funders need to realize is that innovation is not easy. It requires patience supported by funding, the right team, evidence that the idea will work and continuity. Juma echoed van Houten’s point and told the story of a young boy who built an airplane that flew for a few minutes before it crashed. Juma said that, instead of harnessing the boy’s clear love of aeronautics, he was arrested after being released from the hospital. Juma said such a situation is unacceptable because the boy clearly showed he has a talent that should be nurtured. African nations need to build into their national innovation systems ways to identity such innovators and then nurture them, he added.

The World Economic Forum