At the World Economic Forum on Africa last week, I was part of a small group of people working to connect science and technology with the larger business agenda. Moderated by Lanre Akinola, Editor of This Is Africa, the panel included Gunilla Carlsson (Swedish International Development Cooperation Minister), Claver Gatete (Rwandese Finance and Economic Planning Minister) and Frans van Houten (Royal Phillips Electronics CEO and Chairman).
The consensus of the panel was that Africa’s science and innovation agenda will be driven by contemporary challenges such as agriculture, health and environment. “Africa’s solutions will help to contribute to solutions in industrialized countries in fields such as green growth,” said Carlsson.
Minister Carlsson’s comments build on a solid body of emerging evidence. The Swedish firm, Ericsson developed the world’s first mobile phone in 1956 (it weighed 42 kg back then). Nobody would have thought then that Africans would create a multi-billion money transfer industry using mobile phones that weighed only a few ounces.
Frans van Houten pushed the vision even further by suggesting that Africa can do for health what it has done for mobile communication. “The prospects of reverse innovation where Africa will start to export low-cost technological solutions to the rest of the world are real,” he stressed. Indeed, Phillips and others such as IBM, Samsung and Ericsson are setting up research facilities in Africa.
Minister Gatete focused on the importance of using existing technologies to solve local problems. He stressed that existing technologies played a key role in the recovery of Rwanda following the genocide. “We focused on improving the livelihoods of the people through income-generating activities. Behind all these efforts lay technologies such as mobile phone. We later started to stall fiber optic cables. But the creative energy lies with our people, especially farmers who were able to introduce new agro-industrial processes using existing technologies.”
According to Gatete, the secret of Rwanda’s success lay in its ability to create enabling policies which were guided by a strategic vision for using technology for economic revival and development. “Our Vision 2020 was critical in guiding our efforts,” he noted.
The problem-oriented focus was reinforced by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille who noted that many South African scientists had won Nobel prizes in the sciences by focusing on solving practical problems in physics, chemistry and medicine. African scientists have contributed to many other fields of scientific endeavor and are well-positioned to do the same in future, she said. “But they must abandon the separation between basic and applied research and focus on finding solutions to contemporary problems,” she underscored.
In terms of technological innovation, Africa can benefit by harnessing the fast scientific and technological advances that are occurring worldwide. But to do that it needs to build the engineering capacity needed to adapt existing knowledge to solving local problems. These solutions, according to Carlsson, can also benefit the global community in fields such as green innovation.
To realize this, Africa will need to find innovative ways to rapidly build up its engineering capacity. Existing universities can play a role. But more needs to be done. One option is to upgrade existing engineering-oriented research institutes in ministries to complement university efforts.
For example, ministries responsible for telecoms can take the lead in training a new generation of electronics engineers. Similarly, research and training institutes in energy and power ministries could create colleges to train professional in their sector. Ministries of agriculture have widely distributed research institutes that could seed the next generation of technical universities.
Achieving these grand objectives will require high-level political commitment and guidance. Presidents and prime ministers will need to be routinely engaged in promoting the creation of a new generation of African professionals focused on problem-solving with competence in practical engineering and business education.
Today, all African presidents are supported by economic advisers. The time has come for them to complement the work of economic advisers with science, engineering and innovation advisers. But advisers are not just people who whisper in the ears of heads of state. They are professionals whose work in guided by proper laws, procedures and staff trained in policy analysis.
A new vision of Africa based on creativity and innovation needs to emerge, alongside the discussion on economic growth. The good news is that the continent is ready to absorb new ideas arising from the World Economic Forum in its capacity as a de facto global open university.
Calestous Juma (Twitter @calestous) is Professor of the Practice of International Development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He also co-chairs the African Union’s High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation, and serves on the judging panel of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.