I recently contacted United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and submitted our questions to Ms Aida Opoku-Mensah, Director – ICT, Science and Technology Division (ISTD). The purpose of our interview was to assess the work of the organization in pushing the innovation agenda across the continent. The interview is divided into two parts.
We were very impressed with the work of the organization. Indeed innovation is at the centre of the ICT, Science and Technology Division.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) is one of the five UN Regional Commissions established to promote the economic and social development of its member States, foster intra-regional integration, and promote international cooperation for Africa’s development. In order to achieve this mandate, UNECA over the years has developed a number of programmes, among which is the Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Programme.
The STI Programme is designed to help member States to harness the potential of science, and technology and unleash the power of innovation to accelerate socio-economic development in a sustainable manner. The STI Programme offers:
- Policy advice on new and emerging trends,
- Technical assistance in designing and implementation of policies and support measures and
- Support to scientists and their institutions to unlock Africa’s creative minds and entrepreneurial talents.
Innovation Africa: In fostering economic development in Africa, what do you see as the role of Innovation?
UNECA views innovation as the process of combining resources in new or extraordinary ways to generate new or improved products (goods and services) and processes. These improvements may range from slight improvements (incremental) on existing ones to major leaps in performance (radical innovations) and changes in technology systems. Africa faces many challenges that could benefit from innovations – such as new applications of existing knowledge in agriculture, health, education, environment, information technology, infrastructure development and delivery of other key services.
Encouraging our scientists, institutions and firms to innovate could help Africa realize the immerse opportunities in the continent and around the world. This is not an impossible task – Africa has just witnessed many “African first” innovations in the mobile phone applications that were born out of combinations of existing knowledge to solve unique African challenges in the area of money transfers. These innovations created business opportunities for many firms, created jobs and reduced the costs of money transfers especially in rural Africa.
One area that has been neglected is promotion of non-technological innovations – new and improved ways of organizing internal institutional practices, external relations and market approaches. In some cases, the technology exists, applications are known and the opportunities are many but they cannot be realized because the practices do not permit. For example, few African firms invest in R&D, have links to R&D centres or participate in international industrial alliances. In a way, they are not taking on board emerging practices that cut the costs and risks of product development, manufacturing/delivery and marketing. In other cases, the internal practices are too rigid to permit use of emerging technologies.
Another area of great potential in Africa is design innovation. If African products are to compete at home and abroad, their appearance and feel has to meet the needs of increasingly sophisticated consumers. A consumer’s decision to buy a product over another may be partly based on its design (e.g. shoes, computers, cars and homes) in addition to utility. Designs also present many technological challenges that push the development of better solutions and/or more technologically advanced materials.
As such we see innovation as playing a major role in the economic and social development in Africa. First, it is crucial to promote innovation in order to meet some of Africa’s basic needs such as food security, expanding education, improving healthcare among others.
Innovation should also play a key role in creating businesses, jobs and wealth. In particular, Africa will need to create millions of jobs annually to reduce unemployment and even to just maintain its current unemployment rate given its relatively high birth rate. Africa’s young population could be harnessed to be entrepreneurial and innovative in nature, and serve as drivers of economic growth. There are many initiatives in African countries such as Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia that seek to promote entrepreneurship and innovation. These include science and entrepreneurship support funds, economic empowerment funds, innovation hubs and enterprise development centres, among others. A lot more still remains to be done to ensure these initiatives grow and benefit the continent.
Innovation Africa: What are the priority areas for UNECA?
UNECA’s STI activities fall into three broad categories:
1. POLICY RESEARCH AND ANALYSIS: In order to promote and encourage innovation, it is important that countries create an environment in which STI can flourish. In this regard, UNECA offers member states STI policy advice, supports policy implementation, undertakes assessments of their national innovation environment, monitors trends in technology transfer in African countries and gathers, analyses and disseminates STI related information.
UNECA has finalized the African Innovation Framework which will guide our policy research and analysis. The Innovation Framework will guide most of UNECA’s policy advice, analysis, formulation and implementation. The Framework is also designed as a model that countries could use, independently or with our support, to develop and implement specific innovation policy interventions and mechanisms as well as comprehensive national innovation policies.
In addition, a member State may request UNECA to help in formulating national legislation, constituting national councils and academies of sciences and organizing key stakeholder conferences to address specific STI related policies. For instance, UNECA has just supported the development of the draft Gambian Science, Technology and Innovation Policies. Currently, a number of requests for such support have been received from countries such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Gambia, Niger and Togo, among others. In the last one year we have worked with more than 20 member States.
2. OUTREACH AND ADVOCACY: One of the main challenges that UNECA identified is the lack of STI-related promotion in Africa. To meet this challenge, UNECA has put in place a number of activities. For example, the UNECA-led Science with Africa Conference brings together about 600 scientists, policy makers and private sector leaders in a friendly and almost informal but frank environment to address and develop strategies to advance the use and application of science and technology in Africa. The Second Science with Africa which took place from 23 to 25 June 2010 in Addis Ababa, specifically focused of innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa. . The conferences main objectives were to identify steps that African countries could take to ensure:
- outputs of their research and development (R&D) centres are transformed into economic and social value;
- enterprises continuously improve existing or generate new products and processes to remain competitive and create sustainable jobs and;
- institutions stimulate entrepreneurship an
d innovation at all levels (individual, firm and academia).
To achieve the above, it is important to address innovation and entrepreneurship for a number of reasons. Entrepreneurial talent is needed to transform knowledge into useful products that address Africa’s many challenges in areas such as agriculture, health, education, energy, infrastructure and climate change. In return, the private sector is also a major driver and consumer of innovation.
ECA also supports the implementation of AU/NEPAD Consolidated Plan of Action; development of guidelines for the health sector (Afro Guide) and promotes access to scientific knowledge in Africa (ASKIA)
3. BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT SUPPORT SERVICES – This activity comprises of initiatives that seek to promote technology development and commercialization as well as emergence to technology intensive business. Some of the key activities include the African Science to Business Challenge (ASBC), African Science and Technology Innovation Endowment Fund (ASTIEF) and the African Technology Development and Transfer Network.
It is important to underline that all these programmes benefit from the expertise and inputs of the members of the Science and Technology Advisory Group (STAG) and the Committee on Development Information Science and Technology (CODIST) and participants of at the biannual Science with Africa (SwA) Conference, among others. It is important to emphasize that the STI programme also benefits from other specialized sections with the ICT, Science and Technology Division (ISTD). These include the Information and Communication Technology Section, Geographical Information Services Section and e-Applications Section.
Francis Stevens George