AFRICA: Technology transfer trends boost universities

The Ethiopia-based United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, ECA, has found evidence of rapid growth in the rate of Africa's industrial technology acquisition, which could support the current drive to promote investment in research and development and higher education through enhancing university-industry-government partnerships.

The evidence was documented in a comprehensive study, A Technological Resurgence: Africa in the global flow of technology, released on 21 January.

The ECA study tracks flows of investment and knowledge, with specific focus on technology transfer trends in areas such as royalties and licensing fees, capital goods, business and professional and technical services, as well as R&D and intellectual property rights.

As reported on the commission's website, inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Africa - one of the main channels of technology transfer - soared by over 800% between 2000 and 2008. This indicates that Africa is building a sound manufacturing base likely to support the production of value-added goods and services, including high-tech products.

The ECA study said: "Africa is performing better in proxies that are closely related to trade and investment such as trade in capital goods and royalties and licensing fees (industrial technologies) than those that represent emerging knowledge such as the flow of intellectual property rights and research, development and testing services (scientific and technological strength)."

The website explained that royalties and licensing fees rose six times globally, but 10 times in Sub-Saharan Africa - second only to East Asia and the Pacific (57 times). This is higher than the OECD countries (six times) and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) (five times).

At the continental level, royalty and licensing fee payments for Cameroon, Senegal, South Africa, Swaziland and Tunisia increased rapidly between 1990 and 2007.

The study said compared to other regions Africa posted the fastest growth in capital goods imports between 2001 and 2006, but the lowest between 1990 and 2006.

The website highlighted that "most of the growth in Africa in imports of capital goods was between 2001 and 2006 (a three-fold increase). In Africa, imports of capital goods increased by more than six times for Madagascar, Zambia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Guinea and Uganda over the same period."

According to the website, patent application numbers grew rapidly in Asia, but only marginally in Africa and LAC, with African trends varying widely. In general, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia receive a large share of the patent applications recorded in Africa.

Between 1990 and 2007 Africa recorded about a two-fold growth in resident trademarks, which was faster than the growth recorded by the OECD (1.6-fold) and LAC (1.5-fold) but lower than Asia (eight-fold). In Sub-Saharan Africa, the website explained, South Africa accounts for almost half of the total non-resident trademarks.

The study recommended that technology development and transfer focus on four core areas, including the promotion of university-industry-government partnerships, where "existing research centres can be used to acquire, adapt and diffuse emerging technology and serve as technology incubators".

The other three core areas suggested are: strategic use of government contracts to encourage technological strengthening of domestic enterprises and joint ventures with foreign suppliers; promotion of industrial alliances to allow African enterprises to access emerging and existing knowledge and skills at home and abroad; and international R&D agreements between African countries and those that export technology.

Said Abdoulie Janneh, ECA Executive Secretary: "The findings reveal an impressive turnaround from the slow growth in Africa's share of the number of patents, peer-reviewed scientific publications and technology exports and imports, which grew very slowly in the 1980s to 1990s."

However, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's message for Africa Industrialisation Day on 20 November 2010 stated that "Africa's manufacturing output was only 0.9% of the global total in 2008, and its primary commodities still account for more than half the value of its exports".

Also, Africa produces only about 27,000 academic papers a year - about the same volume of published output as The Netherlands - concentrated in Egypt in the north, Nigeria in the middle and South Africa in the south, according to a 2010 report by UK-based Thomson Reuters' research performance analysis and interpretation group, Evidence.

Mamadou Goita, special advisor to the director-general of the Mali-based Rural Economy Institute, cautiously welcomed the ECA report, telling University World News: "It is difficult to translate increase of African trade in capital goods, royalties and licensing fees into sustainable growth in industrial technologies until the main problems facing African scientists at universities and associated centres are sorted out."

The virtual incubator for science-based business, VISB - an initiative of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the 57-country Organisation of the Islamic Conference, or OIC, aimed at strengthening links between scientific research and business development - offers the following explanation, which applies equally to Africa's scientists:

"Despite their efforts OIC scientists have limited interest by the private sector in advancing their research findings. The absence of a culture of research commercialisation in many OIC countries prevents research from being translated into productive use for national economies."

VISB explained that this is exacerbated by the absence of national systems to promote new technological opportunities offered by researchers, often accompanied by poor management structures and lack of basic infrastructure.

"S&T capacities within OIC countries are weak in terms of human and financial resources and often suffer from poor programming and poor working conditions for researchers, with poor pay conditions, resulting in a serious brain drain problem within the sector to other non-science sectors and abroad to developed countries," argued VISB.

According to VISB the unfortunate result is that "technology generally comes from abroad in packaged forms excluding even the possibility of adaptive R&D". The organisation explained that local branches of multinational companies do sometimes place contracts with research institutions and universities but these are "tiny drops in the scientific ocean in relation to total R&D budgets and are often one-off investments with limited repeat possibilities".

The opinions of VISB and of Goita were echoed by Akadiri Yessoufou, a researcher at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin, who told University World News that the private sector in African countries lacks a culture of R&D investment and does not prioritise placing contracts with public sector research institutions or universities.

Yessoufou said that increasing industrial technology acquisition is not enough. As the VISB website explained: "For innovation to take root, the 'golden triangle' of academic institutions, governments and the private sector must cooperate in doing business."