Innovation Africa: I am impressed with the objectives of the second Science with Africa conference. These three objectives are exactly what is needed to make research, invention and new practices to innovation. It highlights the fact that innovation is a multi-stage process.
What is UNECA doing to support research in Africa?
There are a number of initiatives that are primarily designed to promote and support research in Africa. Some seek to encourage development of national and regional initiatives to support research and development in a given region. UNECA, for example, has been providing support to the Inter-University Council of East African Community for the development of the East African Research Network of Excellence Observatory (EARNEO).
The regional R&D observatory will facilitate R&D collaboration, development of similar standards, exchange of researchers and students and assessing the challenges, opportunities, strengths and threats to R&D performance excellence in the region. This work is part of large effort to support the academia in Ethiopia, East Africa and North Africa.
In the area of ICTs for Development, UNECA has been supporting research at Addis Ababa University in development of electronic applications for use in the health sector. These applications include use of mobile technology to provide increased access to health services and system design and development of an on-time SMS based Mobile Health and Demographic Data Reporting and Communication System UNECA also provided support to the development of the MICTI Technology and Business Incubator in Mozambique.
The Access to Scientific Knowledge in Africa (ASKIA) initiative is a one-stop online reference database to enable scientists in Africa to access some of the premier peer-reviewed journals and periodicals. Many African learning and research institutions have limited access to new and emerging knowledge as most of their libraries face financial and technical constraints. Furthermore, we hope to bring on board other similar initiatives such as those in the areas of agriculture and environment.
To promote competition among our researchers, ECA, in partnership with the Research Triangle Institute- International (RTI), runs the African Science to Business Challenge (ASBC). This is a competitive grant that supports the winning researcher(s) to spend a year in the United States at the Research Triangle Institute developing their ideas into a business.
UNECA also just launched the STI endowment fund and the technology development and transfer network. The African Science, Technology and Innovation Endowment Fund (ASTIEF), is a revolutionary funding mechanism to support bankable R&D outputs that are likely to make a commercial and social return. This is a novel initiative being developed through a unique public-private partnership that brings together the entrepreneurial culture and creativity of the private sector, on one hand, and the ability of the public sector to improve the business climate. Some outstanding African business leaders such as Mr Remi Olowude, Executive Vice Chairman of Industrial and General Insurance Plc, and Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, President of African Business Roundtable, have already contributed to the fund. I thank them and all the other institutions that have already contributed to this cause and welcome others to emulate their example.
The Technology Development and Transfer Network seeks to enhance the capacity of African institutions, in particular, technology transfer offices, to bring potentially useful research leads and technologies to market and facilitate inter-firm and intra-firms technology transfer. It will accordingly create a regional pool of seasoned scientists and business leaders that will help emerging scientists and techno-entrepreneurs to tap expertise and resources in and outside their national boarders.
We are aware that UNECA alone cannot meet the needs of all the scientists and technology firms in all the African countries. Therefore, our contribution in this area includes advocacy and policy promotion to help member States put in place not just policies but also the necessary support mechanisms – science and venture capital funds, technology adaptation and transfer offices, improved soft and hard science and technology infrastructure, and science education. As such, UNECA organizes, supports and participates in national and regional policy dialogues that bring together policy makers, researchers, industry and other stakeholders to address specific issues such as women in science, role of science and technology in meeting MDGs, development and management of science parks and incubators etc.
UNECA is also working with other partners to encourage research in Africa. For example, in collaboration with the AU Commission and the Good Clinical Practice Alliance (Europe), ECA is supporting the development of guidelines for health research in Africa (known as “Afro Guide”). The collaboration is a follow-up activity to the Science with Africa conference. It seeks to establish commonly accepted African and international standards for the promotion of ethics and good clinical practice. The second meeting of Afro Guide just took place this year on 22 June 2010 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Innovation Africa: We know that innovation is becoming more Open, with collaboration, knowledge networks and alliances playing a crucial role. What are your thoughts on this?
International industrial and technology alliances have become indispensable tools in promoting innovation. Africa does not participate in many viable and innovative industrial alliances. Many of these alliances are in the areas of space science, biotechnology, information technology and automobiles. Africa is not a major player in any of these fields.
In terms of scientific collaborations, African researchers collaborate largely with researchers in developed countries rather than with those in developing countries. Current data suggests that African researchers in these collaborative activities play a minor role. There are several reasons but some of the key ones include lack of domestic funding and poor S&T infrastructure. As such, most of the funding of the research originates from the developed country partner and the sophisticated research activities are performed by the developed country partners. This is likely to influence the science and technology agenda of African institutions that largely depend on foreign funds to undertake their R&D activities.
However, there are emerging numbers of R&D collaborative projects where African institutions are taking the lead. For example, the CSIR Satellite Applications Centre in South Africa collaborates and provides tracking, telemetry and command (TT&C) services to commercial companies and public space agencies for their space launches and Nile University in Egypt is collaborating with General Motors to undertake research of interest to the firm. There are also a number of similar collaborations among pharmaceutical and telecommunication firms. Such collaborations can be boosted by international cooperation agreements between interested African countries and their partners abroad.
Innovation Africa: Another key factor is the need to bring research and business in win-win partnership. Some of the most innovative business/technology were the result of academic research. Do you have any initiatives in place for research and business to connect?
We have a number of initiatives that are designed to increase cooperation between researchers and the private sector. One focuses on encouraging the private sector to participate is supporting research through the STI Endowment Fund and national research support programmes such as science parks and incubators.
Many of the initiatives that are mentioned already involve the private sector. More import
antly, they are intended to encouraging African researchers and their institutions to protect their intellectual assets and commercialize their research outputs. For instance, the African Science to Business Challenge (ASBC), African Science, Technology and Innovation Endowment Fund (ASTIEF) and the African Technology Development and Transfer Network are designed to help researchers work with businesses or bring their products to market – thus creating a private sector that is likely to cooperate with R&D centres.
Finally, as part of our advocacy and policy advisory programmes, we encourage national governments and their institutions to put in place similar mechanisms and develop platforms in order to work closely with their private sector. This includes our work with networks of universities, academies of sciences and national science and technology councils, and studies on best practices in technology transfer and promoting innovation.
Francis Stevens George