Science, Technology and Innovation in Africa—not always rosy, but it is about to be

Africa accounts for less than 1% of the world’s research output, despite having 12% of its population

IN June 2014, global technology giant Microsoft launched its 4Afrika IP Hub, a portal that would, for free, protect young African developers’ intellectual property (IP) rights in exchange for publishing their inventions.

In tech-savvy Nairobi, one of the launch capitals, the young crowd of geeky and cool developers excitedly welcomed the possibility of being able to finally make money from their work. For years they have tended to operate in the informal economy, largely invisible to investors.

A two-year trial, Microsoft will then hand over a successful project to the Kenyan government, before rolling it out to other African capitals, according to Kunle Awosika, Microsoft’s country manager.

The multi-million dollar investment and its positive reception mirrors the concern that while the continent is home to many brilliant inventions, it has been difficult to invest them to scale, there being little information as to their value, and consequently, tap them for Africa’s growth.

Avocado export start-up

Mutembo Chanda runs an avocado export start-up out of a warehouse along the Great North Road leading out of the Zambian main city of Lusaka. Until he invested in a cold room onsite, the biggest cost to him was storage losses.

“But it often breaks down, and getting the right technician to fix it is a hit-and-miss affair,” he says, adding that this leads to delayed payments to his suppliers, who are largely small scale growers in the countryside.

Mutembo could be speaking for any small trader on the continent, and by extension, the farmers who toil hard only to run into major challenges storing, selling and earning from their sweat. 

Initiatives in Zambia to strengthen the agricultural value chain have largely seen foreign institutions fund small groups, the result being to clear the way for major chains to buy the produce directly.

On the surface it is a desirable situation, but the catch is in the lack of indigenous solutions, especially on a continent that perenially battles hunger despite its rich potential.

This has meant a lot of food goes to waste, faced with obstacles from processing to preservation, hurting the continent’s overall competitiveness. The situation could get worse as climate change begins to bite, with Africa relegated to seeking external help to combat the challenge.

To turn things around and take advantage of major global opportunities, experts say Africa requires transformation-focused policies.

“The focus must be on needs-based innovation; the value created is what matters,” says Dr Ndubuisi Ekekwe, the founder and president of the African Institution of Technology.

 This transition from an invention and production economy—including of mineral resources— into an innovation and competitive economy, requires knowledge, bringing into sharp focus the role of higher education institutions.

Less than 10%

These institutions play a crucial role in fine-tuning the continent’s human resource base. But despite massive demand and the concomitant expansion of institutions, according to the African Union less than 10% of Africans have enrolled for tertiary education.

In 1991, Africa had only 2.7 million university students, by the end of this year projections are of 18-20 million students, according to the World Bank. To service this unmet demand, there has been a proliferation of private universities, with Africa now closing in on 1,000 universities and over 1,500 other institutions of higher learning.

The trend is such that by 2020, private institutions could outnumber publicly-funded ones—in Somalia for example, all 40 universities are privately owned, in South Africa they outnumber public institutions by a ratio of 4:1, and 7 to 1 in Ghana.

But it is not nearly enough, and it is compounded by the problem that few private institutions play in the science, technological and innovation (STI) space, preferring to instead concentrate on more “marketable” areas that offer more income earning capacity.

Underfunding by governments constrained by the opportunity cost of spending the money towards more urgent areas has not helped resolve the situation. A trend that begun in the 1980s as African governments battled with socio-economic challenges and structural reforms, regional governments have continued to allocate little of their funding to higher learning, and even less so to science and innovation.

It is a paradox—education in most African countries takes up the highest proportion of their national budgets, but almost nothing reaches tertiary institutions. 

The unavoidable result has been of students seeking higher education by any means possible, raising the question of quality, and consequently, skills and job market mismatches, not to mention the attendant brain drain.

“The correlation of jobs to output is lacking in Africa, with little incentive for partnership between institutions and employers,” Dr Ndubuisi adds, urging for the attraction of more private money to education.

The Square Kilometre Array space project in South Africa has for example had to send out engineers for training abroad, and while there is growing African expertise, the continent’s brightest brains continue to be drawn away to what they see as better opportunities abroad.

Agenda 2063

But institutions like Ghana’s Ashesi University are changing this, with its noticeable focus on what the market needs, a trend increasingly mirrored by many other institutions. Ashesi has looked to build links with employers as it looks to match their requirements.  

The African Union’s development agenda, “The Africa We Want in 2063” calls for a more robust higher education and research space that is both relevant and responsive to the continent’s lived challenges, and to ensure future sustainable growth.

African governments’ investments in STI research also remains weak, severely harming the scope for innovation and locally-adept solutions. The region accounts for less than 1% of the world’s research output, despite having 12% of its population, even as research output more than doubled between 2003 and 2012.

Only 29% of all research in Africa is in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) while there is very little intra-African collaboration, the majority being with institutions in the West.

Citations of Africa-authored research is minuscule—just 0.28% of the global count, while a lot of scientific studies are skewed towards the health sciences and generally follow donors’ money.  

There has also been a shortage of skills sharing—staff mobility across Africa remains constrained, giving rise to initiatives such as the Nyerere Programme, which has been key in promoting portability of degrees across Africa. 

Cognisant of this, the AU Commission has been committed in advocating for bridging the gap between disparate educational systems and fostering academic integration.

Despite a minimum target of 1% of GDP in funding to Research and Development, African countries remain well short of meeting it.

But this has steadily been changing with more collaborations and other encouraging trends seen in Africa, Dr Aldo Stroebel, the executive director of the National Research Foundation, says.

Despite the enormous diversity among African countries, the one constant is that skills are necessary for development; and for growth that moves away from just resource extraction to value addition and adaptation of technology to local conditions. 

AU Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology Dr. Martial De-Paul Ikounga summarises it succinctly: “In as much as the tool is efficient, it is only realisable in the right environment, and particularly, with the right implementation.”

Yet basic infrastructure such as broadband to drive ICT has also more often than not initially been funded by outside partners, such as the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (PHEA) project.

To change the continent’s fortunes and trajectory, investment in science, technology and innovation must therefore be deliberately upscaled, experts say. Areas such as water and sanitation, health, energy, agriculture, climate change and natural resources will all benefit from an increased focus on STI, which is seen as the missing catalyst for wider economic growth and development. 

Reboot

The overarching position is that African policymakers need to reboot their approach towards promoting STI. There has already been a renewed focus in this area in national policy, and also at the highest levels on the continent.

The adoption of the anchor STISA-2024 strategy by African heads of state was a big step towards this, while the planned move for a trust fund dedicated towards STI announced recently by African ministers in Rabat only adds more impetus to the push.

STISA-2024’s four main pillars of developing research infrastructure, enhancing professional and technical competencies, promoting entrepreneurship and innovation; and providing an enabling environment for STI development in Africa address the main issues for the continent, with the message that member states, RECs and the AU all have synergetic roles to play.

Other key players such as the African Development Bank (AfDB) have come up with the Human Capital Strategy (2014-2018), UNESCO has the Priority Africa (2014-2021) while there have been more moves to set up STI centres of excellence in universities all around the continent.     

It is hoped that the high-profile Higher Education Summit in Dakar has been another significant step in further exploring these initiatives and taking stock of the crucial journey towards Africa’s sustainable development.

Article part of M&G Africa and TrustAfrica’s Ebook, Graduating in Africa


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