Africa sharpens R&D profile: innovations in science and technology have been the catalyst behind global growth. In Africa, the seeds of a technology revolution are being sown as many African economies are pursuing research and development as a key driver of socio-economic prosperity. Valerie Noury reports.
"This initiative is the first major Africanled, politically authorised effort to generate a comprehensive and comparative survey of science and technology investment (STI) on the continent. It establishes a foundation for Africa to continue experimenting and measures the effects of STI on its economic and social transformation," states the report.
The African Innovation Outlook 2010 was prepared with data from the ASTII initiative, a project designed by African science ministers and assisted with funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The venture which, for the first time, provides data created and researched in Africa, represents a strategic shift for the continent, who had previously mostly relied on data from outside.
The first comprehensive survey of its kind, it calls on African countries to invest more into the sector, and shows that already in 2007, South Africa, Uganda and Malawi invested more than 1% of their GDP towards science and technology. This is above the 2010 target adopted by heads of states in a 2007 African Union summit.
The report, which collects STI data from 13 countries, shows that South Africa still takes towers over others, spending nearly 30 times more than Malawi and over eight times more than Nigeria on science and technology.
The remaining countries in the survey spent an average 0.20% and 0.48% of their GDP on research and development (R&D). The report also shows that medical research has dominated African research, overtaking agricultural research, which dominated the field during the 1990s.
An astronomic project
South Africa is a very strong contender to become the home to the world's largest radio telescope - a colossal deep space telescope project named SKA, or Square Kilometre Array, which is expected to receive a total investment of [euro] 1.5 billion.
The SKA project will be spread over 5,500 square kilometres with massive three-storey structures connected to a supercomputer, described by scientists as one of the most powerful computing machines in human history.
Everything about the SKA project is monumental, with scientists saying that in the first week of operation, scheduled for 2024, the telescope will exponentially increase man's knowledge about the universe. For example, little is known about the dark ages, the period between the Big Bang, which happened 13.7bn years ago, and the creation of the first stars.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, an ambassador to the project, says "The SKA can take us there," with the invaluable information it is expected to provide. On the other hand, the SKA will also make significant energy demands, but it will also generate innovations and major developments in renewable energy that will assist in producing power.
The final selection of the site, known to be an extremely scrupulous procedure, is now between South Africa and Australia and, if South Africa fends off competition from Australia, the aerospace industry will receive, in the words of South Africa's Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, "the largest science-based capital injection Africa has ever seen".
An environment of constraint has been a useful motor behind many African-led innovations. Thomas Otter, the vice-president of the analyst firm Gartner, based in Germany, has shown great interest in technology innovation coming out of Africa aimed at cutting costs.
One of these innovations was produced by Graylink, a South African supplier of software-as-a-service (SaaS) e-recruitment applications which has developed 'txthire', a mobile recruiting solution designed to meet the needs of candidates who do not have a PC or a smartphone. Otter points out, "While many vendors offer some mobile recruiting capability, txthire has been designed to meet the needs of candidates who may not have a PC or smartphone. Graylink has taken this constraint and innovated with it ..."
Txthire has been programmed to ask questions aimed at gathering client data and also has the capability of performing a comprehensive applicant-screening test in an interview process.
Txthire's good compatibility with the needs of emerging markets is already making the company think of expanding internationally; it is already looking at potential niches in South America.
Other examples described by Otter include Ushahidi, meaning 'testimony* in Swahili, which was initially developed to report violence in Kenya, after the post-election fallout of 2007 and 2008.
Kenya has become a significant source of talent, creating a new generation of innovators. A good example of this is M-Lab, a consortium of stakeholders that includes the University of Nairobi, which aims to breed talented mobile application developers. Manager John Kieti, who is confident that Kenya could develop into a major world technology hub, states "The mobile is much cheaper to get, plus it can be used where there is no infrastructure, like power."
Focus on the mobile phone is clearly pushed by constraints found on the continent but the project does not just encourage innovation for the sake of innovation, it is pulled by demand-driven applications which can be turned into viable business models.
Similarly, across the continent innovation is being driven by local needs. The common problem of small companies accessing larger markets is being addressed in Ghana by a project called Shopafrica53, a platform for advertising the goods and services of small local businesses, giving a unique opportunity to a very large range of entrepreneurs to access widening markets. The website handles logistics from the collection of goods to the organisation of payments.
Tackling fake medicines
IT is even being used to protect the health of individuals in Ghana. An application called mPedigree aims to combat the sometimes deadly impact of fake drugs in the developing world. Fake drugs still range between 10% and 25% of all drugs sold to Third World countries. The problem is particularly severe in some African countries. For example, it is estimated that up to 80% of drugs circulating in Nigeria's pharmaceutical market are fakes.
The application mPedigree aims to solve this problem by checking the authenticity of drugs by verifying an authentication code on the packaging via a free text to a central online registry. The drug industry in Ghana is estimated to be worth $75om a year, with some lower estimates stating that the local fake drug market is worth 10% of this, i.e. $75m is being lost to the industry, illustrating the importance of the role of IT in improving the livelihoods and health of individuals.
Information technology prowess across the continent is increasing and gaining international recognition. CIO magazine's annual global award programme, which identifies organisations around the world that exemplify the highest level of operational and strategic excellence in IT, has named the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) as the recipient of the 2011 CIO 100 award.
ECX, established in 2008, provides a platform for the local market trading grains, pulses and two of Ethiopia's most important exports, coffee and sesame seeds. Since the start of its operations, ECX has processed over $1.4bn in trade volume.
"We are delighted to be the first organisation in Africa to receive this prestigious award which exemplifies excellence in strategic and innovative use of information technology in line with our strategy," said Dr Eleni Gabre-Madhin, CEO of ECX.
Funding and education
While the main challenge to scientific innovation in Africa remains funding, another problem has been that for years Africa has relied on data and statistics from outside the region. This has impacted negatively on the relationship between industry and science and technology institutions and there has been no correlation between research and development and national industrial development goals.
The vital prerequisite for creating knowledge-based economies across Africa is, of course, advanced education. This requires more funding towards graduate study programmes in the field and for senior researchers, and a more solid and dependable funding of institutions involved in research.
In South Africa, R4.ibn ($608.3m) has been allocated towards this goal last year. The budget for this financial year has been announced with an improved allocation of R4.4bn. The funding will also go towards another 62 research chairs to be established by 2013, with an estimated investment of R914m ($135.5m).
International firms have also been supporting the key areas of education and R&D. IBM sees prosperous growth prospects for the IT sector in Africa over the next five years due to a boom in the banking and telecom sectors. It signed a deal in September to handle Bharti Airtel's IT operations in 16 African countries.
"Industry analysts are predicting a 10% growth year on year in IT over the next two to five years across Africa. In East Africa, it's probably even higher than that," states Tony Mwai, the country general manager for IBM in East Africa. In its recent bid to increase its footprint across Africa, IBM opened its 20th outlet in June, with an office in Tanzania. It plans to work closely with the Tanzanian government to support IT through better educational resources.
As part of the agreement, IBM will facilitate collaboration with universities in the US for research projects revolving around cloud computing and business analytics. IBM will support access to such resources for universities and secondary schools across the country, especially those that are found in remote areas, thus playing a key role in increasing Tanzania's competitiveness in the global economy.
ASTII is also an integral part of promoting technology education across the continent. ASTII is part of the Africa Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action, adopted in 2005 by the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AM-COST). AMCOST's mission is to respond to socio-economic challenges facing the region through the use of science, technology and innovation.
The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the African Union's science and technology development arm, recently launched the second phase of the ASTII and the African Innovation Outlook's projects to build up the continent's ability to collect and analyse data to further promote innovation.
The first phase of ASTI, coordinated by the AU Commission, ran from 2007 to 2010; it was a learning period, giving AU member states the opportunity to engage in mutual learning and knowledge sharing.
This first phase of ASTII, with education as a central tenet, saw the creation of five new science, technology and innovation hubs across universities in Africa.
Individual initiatives promoting science and technological innovation are collectivelly establishing a road map for Africa to more fully harness its pools of untapped talent. Whilst serious challenges remain, this latest round of initiatives demonstrates how much progress is being made to both improve recognition of the vital importance of the role of technology in growing Africa's prosperity and in laying the foundations to that end.
To date, effective data collection in the field has been a major issue. As the African Innovation Outlook shows, there are still major omissions that one should be wary of when looking at this data. For example, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania did not survey their business sectors, meaning, for example, that Nigeria's total R&D spend could be much more significant if business R&D was included. Similarly, in Mozambique, where higher education was not surveyed, the figures may be misleading.
The pillars of technological innovation are an educated workforce, appropriate support and cooperation between industry, government and research institutions, and the accurate gathering of data to track progress and enable better planning.
$ 75m a year is estimated to be lost to the drug industry in Ghana through fake drugs: the mPedigree IT application could check their authenticity
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2011|
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