Africa, the Next Frontier for Innovation, Science and Technology

UPDATED August 20, 2019 07:47 am .

Francis Cordor
August 20, 2019 07:47 am

Africa, the cradle of civilization, has lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of science, technology, and innovation. The reasons for this are varied and complex, but the continent is taking steps to change that. In fact, Africa is several years into its 10-year Science, Technology, and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024), which was adopted three years ago this June at the 23rd Ordinary Session of African Union Heads of State and Government Summit.

In a continent where agriculture, mining, health care, infrastructure development, security, water, and other critical sectors are so important, in a continent where extreme poverty, famine, bloodshed, and some of the world’s most devastating diseases are facts of life, why is it so essential to focus on science, technology, and innovation?

If you look at the six “priority areas” of STISA, you’ll soon see several important opportunities:

  • Eradication of hunger and achieving food security
  • Prevention and control of diseases
  • Communication (Physical & Intellectual Mobility)
  • Protection of our space
  • Live together – build the society
  • Wealth creation

These are all basic requirements for quality of life. After all, if you don’t have access to clean drinking water or food to feed your family, you and your entire family will suffer greatly. Deadly epidemics continue to plague the continent.

Ensuring good health is, of course, a top priority, but there are other factors that contribute to a good quality of life. For example, communication isn’t just about the ability to talk or text on a phone, it’s also about knowledge exchange, management, and cultivation — each of which can spur innovation locally. Likewise, protecting natural resources, taking steps to mitigate climate change, and investing in peacekeeping missions are all essential to the wellbeing of all Africans and our wildlife.

Creating wealth is another important goal. It’s not necessarily about amassing riches for African states, heads of states, or individuals; it’s about becoming self-sufficient. It’s about developing internal capacities, locally leveraging (without exploiting) our own resources, and creating jobs and opportunities for Africans.

But these necessities don’t simply happen on their own — especially when large populations are involved and resources scarce. It takes a mix of science, technology, and innovation; it takes brilliant and curious minds; it takes a commitment to prioritizing all of the above.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Three years ago, Africa’s heads of states and governments made that commitment. Among the nearly dozen prerequisite actions identified in STISA is this:

“A strong political will and trust in the intellectual capacity of the sons and daughters of the continent.”

And this: “Build a strong science culture.” And this: “Encourage collaboration within and between states in the area of innovation and entrepreneurship.” And this: “Take measures to curb brain drain…” The list goes on, culminating in four pillars to support the entire strategy:

  • Infrastructure development
  • Technical competencies
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship
  • Enabling environment

For each of the six priority areas identified, the strategy also highlights several specific research and/or innovation areas to focus on.

Africa has the will, and it has a plan to make it happen. You can read more about Science, Technology, and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024) in this On the Wings of Innovation document from the Africa Union Commission.

While the support and encouragement of governments cannot be understated, there’s one more factor that is helping to spur technology and innovation across the African continent: widespread availability and adoption of mobile phones. These devices have bridged a huge communications gap across the continent, bringing both basic phone communications and Internet access to rural areas and inspiring young entrepreneurs to build their own apps and services.

What Type of Progress has Been Made?

While the various African governments are working behind the scenes to create enabling science, technology, and innovation environments, African entrepreneurs and various agencies have heeded the call and are blazing their own paths.

For example, the use of drones is being tested in Malawi to conduct HIV health research and transport HIV samples from rural areas to hospital labs. In South Africa, drones are being used to stop poachers from killing rhinos.

Other examples of tech innovations across Africa include: Jobberman, the largest jobs board in sub-Saharan Africa; Txtlight / Lumos, a pay-as-you-go solar electricity service for Nigerians living off the grid; Livestock Wealth, a “crowd-farming” app developed in South Africa; and M-Pesa, Kenya’s leading mobile money system used by over 17 million Kenyans.

Is it Enough?

According to the African Capacity Building Foundation’s 2017 Africa Capacity Report, African countries have shown a willingness to strive for science, technology, and innovation-led development. However, despite more than two-thirds of African countries having STI policies and strategies in place, “…their capacity to implement them remain very low.”

The report notes that progress on Africa’s capacity for science, technology, and innovation is encouraging, but building capacity and addressing capacity gaps to ensure sustainable development through STI “remains a formidable challenge, involving the acquisition of all manner of skills, knowledge, and infrastructure; of adept public and private support and policies; and of financial resources.”

Again, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Africa is making progress and has a good framework in place. A renewed commitment, more funding, and steps to keep the brightest young minds engaged without the need to seek offshore opportunities could make a real difference in becoming the new frontier in science, technology, and innovation.



Featured Photo: Courtesy of Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA 2024)

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