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Africa can invent: Leapfrogging in unsuspected areas

6 September 2013
Africa can invent: Leapfrogging in unsuspected areas

One only needs to pick up a magazine or leading newspaper to read about innovations that are sweeping across Africa. From M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer service invented in Kenya that has revolutionized African banking practices, to South Africa hosting the Square Kilometer Array, the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope ever constructed. This is quite different from common perception. Should Africa’s attainments come as a surprise? Not really! Leading science and innovation has run in African veins since ancient times. Its accomplishments however have seldom been attributed or publicized. They range from algebraic equations born some 35,000 years ago to the engineering genius of the pyramids; from the astronomical brilliance of the Dogon people, to architectural masterpieces of Timbuktu or Great Zimbabwe.

Advancing Africa’s Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) and its effective application to economic transformation is the new challenge. According to UNESCO’s Science report 2010, Research and Development (R&D) in Africa still attracts less public funding than military, heath or education sectors. A survey of 19 Africa countries by the AU-NEPAD in 2012 revealed that only Malawi, Uganda and South Africa had invested more than 1% of their GDP in R&D, while the rest spent between 0.2 and 0.5%. UNESCO’s science report 2010, estimates that only 0.3% of GDP is dedicated to R&D on average across the continent. This is 7 times less than the investment made in industrialized countries.

The continent has also only registered 0.6% of worldwide patent applications, compared to 51% in Asia. Africa recorded 0.4% of gross domestic R&D expenditure compared to 1.6% for Asia. Although innovation is pervasive, the value of innovations made, their quality, relevance and impact are overshadowed by limited investment in knowledge generation and commercialization.The situation is further compounded by the shortage of highly trained scientists and engineers. In 2007, one could count only 164 researchers per million Africans against a world average of 1,081. Despite lagging behind globally, there is an air of excitement brought about by the rapid adoption of new technologies and the explosion of frugal innovation hubs which are helping drive the continent’s transformational agenda.

African countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Morocco, Nigeria or South Africa, have the ingredients to take-off the same way as technology leaders such as China, the Republic of Korea or Brazil did during previous technological revolutions. China’s rise for example, took place over a period of just three decades under reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping lifting more than 400 million people out of poverty. Its most successful ingredient was the establishment of numerous Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and their industrial clusters. In just fifteen years of their formation, the clusters accounted for half of China’s high-tech gross industrial output and one third of its high-tech exports. Today China is the second largest economy in the world. If other nations made it, Africa should have the same ambition. The continent is already showcasing potential and favorable opportunities. 

Why now?

In terms of economic growth, Africa is doing well. An increased prevalence of peace, improved governance and strong internal demand has revived investor confidence. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is growing faster than in any other regions in the world.  Dividends are also to be reaped from the Euro zone crisis or Chinese increasing unit costs, for example, in export competitiveness and diversification to new markets like the BRICS. This coupled with the increase in revenues from commodity exports mean African governments have the opportunity to allocate more funds to STI and start stepping out of the low value trap. Some countries are already investing in innovative renewable and clean energy sectors; with the abundance of unexploited renewable energy, Africa has the potential to leap to a new clean techno-economic paradigm. Growing awareness of the impact of environmental degradation and climate change is giving rise to new R&D priorities like clean energy technologies or bio-agriculture. The European Commission's Institute for Energy suggests that 0.3 % of the sunlight that shines on the Sahara and Middle East deserts could supply all of Europe's energy needs.

Africa’s demographic trends, including rapid urbanization, offer opportunities if a proper demographic dividend is introduced in development strategies. Projections suggest that in less than three generations, 41% of the world’s youth will be African. By 2050, Africa’s youth will constitute over a quarter of the world’s labor force. A correlation can be drawn from Asian emerging markets, where 40% of its rapid economic growth between 1965 and 1990 was attributable to an increase in the working age population. Africa’s digitally savvy youth can be positioned to help push for industrialization. Projections indicate that by 2030, 50% of Africans will be living in cities. Larger groups of population living in close proximity allow for economies of scale and closer interaction of skilled and qualified people sharing their knowledge and innovations. Cities in Africa already generate approximately 55% of the continents total GDP. With more growth they could match developed countries where cities generate approximately 90% of their GDP. The opportunities for economic growth, poverty reduction, human development and innovation are profound.

Africa’s often criticized informal sector happens to also be one of the most inventive environments. It is a breeding ground for frugal innovation and resilient entrepreneurs who can literally make treasure out of trash, from tools to grass cutting machines to water pumps to anything one may need in that environment. Technologists of this informal economy represent a huge pool of indigenous talent that Africa must engage in its industrialization process. The informal sector constitutes a very important size in the economy. Traditionally, it was associated with increasing poverty and weak employment conditions. It includes now investment by entrepreneurs seeking to reduce costs related to wages, retirement pensions and other social benefits. Organising the informal sector and recognizing its role as a profitable activity will contribute further to harnessing Africa’s STI potential as well as formally recognizing and recording it.

The advent of the ICT democratization is offering Africa’s polity opportunities to leapfrog the industrialization stage and bridge technological divides. Africa is already bypassing traditional means with technologies such as wireless, satellite bandwidth and frugal mobile technologies that have relatively lower physical infrastructure requirements and investment costs. Ecobank has built a financial transactions platform now covering thirty five countries while Airtel is the worldwide number one in introducing common rates for voice and data use in 18 countries. The continent is well positioned to absorb, adapt and build on the vast quantities of scientific and technical knowledge already available worldwide to solve its local socio-economic challenges from agriculture to health and environment. Regional economic integration could create more. Without strong integration the narrow market size of most countries will act as a liability. Africa needs to embrace the concept of locomotives where key hubs act as pullers for the rest.

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 revolutionizing a range of sectors. They help such as in healthcare agents target out-of-reach beneficiaries; farmers’ access to real time market information; virtual class rooms in education or monitoring elections. The development of apps tailored by Africans continues to flourish with innovations such as Mafuta-go, Afritab to the VMK elika smart phone 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.  It includes Innovation Hubs, Technology Labs, Science & Technology Parks, incubators and accelerator, 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 Konzo, Kenya, now ably termed the Silicon Savannah. Major IT companies such as IBM, Samsung, Google, PwC, Nokia/Siemens, Huawei, amongst others have hosted labs or African Headquarters in Kenya.

South Africa’s Science and Technology Park is covering sectors that include IT, Biosciences, Green Technologies.  Industrial mining is one of the many focus areas of the 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 (BecA-ILRI) 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 defense 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 are African’s still having 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 linkages 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 & technology parks, creating closer linkages across the academic world with industry.

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 in 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 linkages 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 recognized 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.