We all know Africa is a continent full of innovation. Now policy makers at all levels must put this strength, along with scientific and technical development, at the centre of economic strategies. Fortunately, the African Union has recently adopted a strategy that seeks to do exactly that.
Strong demand for raw materials, especially by China, and a growth in consumption by an expanding middle class has driven Africa’s growth in the past decade. Seeking sustainability, policymakers are shifting their attention from raw materials to an economic outlook that is driven by technological innovation.
The 10-year Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024) recently adopted by the African Union (AU) embodies this vision. Its mission is to “accelerate Africa’s transition to an innovation-led, knowledge-based economy.” The strategy is part of the longer-term Agenda 2063 – the AU’s development vision and action plan.
The strategy takes into account Africa’s current level of development and its persistent challenges. It seeks to deploy science, technology and innovation to address six key challenges. These include building infrastructure, eliminating hunger, improving human development, protecting the environment, enhancing social cohesion and spreading prosperity.
These priorities have been extensively discussed and are not new. What is different is the determination of African leaders to leverage existing and new technologies to address them in ways that are sustainable and inclusive.
STISA-2024 builds on a series of previous efforts to leverage science and technology for development. Most of the previous efforts assumed a linear relationship between research, development, demonstration and deployment. As a result, much of the policy emphasis was on allocating at least 1% of GDP to research and development (R&D).
Africa still values the importance of research, but no longer considers this linear view to be viable. Based on experiences in the rapid adoption of mobile phones, the continent is now looking into combining R&D with leveraging existing technologies and using them to create new enterprises. This approach provides Africa with a more hopeful future for tapping into an exponentially-growing global knowledge reservoir.
The plan also includes seeing innovation emerge as a result of interactions between government, academia, business and civil society. For example, South Africa has become a major player in the world wine market through interactions between private producers, research institutes, universities and government. Similarly, the emergence of the mobile money transfer industry in Kenya was a result of interactions between government, business, development organisations and the research community.
STISA-2024 has identified four strategic actions that reflect the continent’s statement of development while accommodating differences among states. These are investing in infrastructure development, building human competence, incubating and growing enterprises, and providing an enabling environment for innovation.
Africa has identified two critical areas of infrastructure development that have a direct impact on innovation. The first is physical infrastructure and the associated institutional and legal arrangements. Africa needs nearly $93 billion annually over the next decade to meet its infrastructure needs, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Such projects are inherently technological and provide a basis for accumulating scientific and technical capacity. But being able to do so requires procurement procedures that emphasise the domestication of the associated technologies and knowledge.
The design and implementation of such projects involves expertise in mechanical, civil, electrical and chemical engineering, among other fields. Africa’s design of infrastructure will, therefore, need to be directly linked to the creation of engineering capabilities. Egypt, Kenya and Ghana have recently created universities that focus on telecommunications technologies.
The second area involves the creation of research infrastructure, especially laboratories. Many of these can be directly linked to infrastructure projects, but others need to be set up at universities and research institutes. Engineering projects can be used to acquire equipment needed for scientific research.
African countries will need significantly to expand the availability of quality postgraduate education, and in particular programmes that lead to doctoral qualifications. Achieving this requires a systematic and coordinated approach to human capital development by popularising science and technology. More will need to be done to bring research, teaching and commercialisation under more coordinated management. In much of Africa, research is carried out in national research institutes that do not teach, and universities offer educational programmes with little research capacity or funding. This situation will need to change.
A typical response to such inefficiency is to call for increases in university research funding. An additional approach is to add teaching functions to research institutes to create a new generation of innovation universities. Another path is to encourage the creation of new research universities under technology-oriented businesses, as is being done in Tanzania and Ethiopia.
Enterprises — whether public or private — are the primary vehicle for turning knowledge into goods and services. They are, therefore, the primary driver of economic transformation. It is also in enterprises that technological capabilities accumulate. These capabilities are the fuel for competitiveness.
Africa is investing in enterprise development. But the growing awareness of technical knowledge and entrepreneurship will require forging close connections between business and academia. Other ways to spur entrepreneurship include using universities as incubators for new companies. Creating this role for educational establishments will require reforms to redefine the missions of some universities.
As businesses grow, they demand more technical knowledge. Some of this can be generated internally. Focusing on the scaling up of business, therefore, increases a country’s knowledge base. As firms grow, they also produce new technical knowledge that makes them suitable locations for training future generations.
Universities serve as incubators of businesses. Enterprises also act as midwives of new knowledge-based universities. Africa can learn from South Korea, which has considerable experience in supporting enterprises to create universities. Some African enterprises have internal training programmes that could be upgraded to the level of university-level courses.
The approaches outlined above demand greater creativity and flexibility from African policy makers. Enlightened leadership is required with heads of state or government acting as innovation champions. In addition to providing coordinated policies that fit specific purposes, African countries will need to create policy environments that nurture innovation.
Fostering a culture of innovation requires continuous policy adjustment. This process is best achieved with the support of effective Offices of Science and Innovation Advice for heads of state and government. So far, no African country has a statutory Office of Science and Innovation Advice. Their creation should be a priority in the early stages of the implementation of STISA-2024.
Getting it done
STISA-2024 will be implemented over four phases at continental, regional and national levels, through flagship programmes that reflect local priorities, needs and capabilities. The strategies outlined above make it possible for countries to leverage their regular investments in infrastructure, education and entrepreneurship to support innovation.
The first task is therefore exploring how to integrate innovation into ongoing activities. Making innovation a routine aspect of existing activities involves considerably less additional financial investment than other routes.
The main task facing Africa is identifying opportunities for innovation in existing programmes. New and additional resources are important. But they are not as critical as using local resources to leverage international cooperation. In the final analysis, making Africa an innovation-driven economy will require creativity and imagination. There is no shortage of these two intrinsic assets.