AFRICA: Mapping science, technology and innovation

To help African countries formulate policies for science development and promote knowledge-based socio-economic development, the first document mapping activities in science, technology and innovation in African countries has been launched.

Published as the first in a series, the 136-page document, African Innovation Outlook 2010, was prepared by the African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators, or ASTII, project, and released by the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) planning and coordinating agency at an ASTII workshop held from 23-25 May in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

According to the executive summary, African Innovation Outlook is expected to generate debate and will improve collecting of better quality data as well as an understanding of policy processes in Africa. The mapping document covers 19 African countries and its six chapters deal with economic and human development challenges for STI; research and development activities; innovation; bibliometric analyses of scientific output; and recommendations for addressing the challenges identified. It also assessed the status of R&D in 2007 and 2008 including expenditure, type of research, qualifications of researchers and areas (experimental, applied or fundamental) where research is being done.

Only three countries - Malawi, Uganda and South Africa - spent more than 1% of gross domestic product on R&D, a target endorsed by the African Union in 2006. The other 10 countries spent below 0.5% of GDP. The public sector comprising the government and higher education sectors accounted for the lion's share of R&D expenditure in all countries surveyed.

South Africa devotes much of its resources to experimental development research (45%), while Tanzania focuses on applied research (59%). The situation is different for Malawi, Mozambique and Uganda where basic research accounted for only about 10% of R&D expenditure. This low science investment and poor funding was identified as the main cause of a crisis of standards in African universities, according to an 18 May document, Economic Report on Africa 2011, produced by the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

That report said R&D budgets should be increased to more than 1.6% of GDP, Asia's rate, and accompanied by effective measures to improve the quality and relevance of educational outcomes to the needs of the job market. Such an R&D budget increase would also help ease the brain drain, retaining skilled people needed for development who have not left Africa.The brain drain among African professionals is acute: for example, more than 40% of medical doctors trained in 25 African countries lived and practiced overseas in 2000.

Innovation Outlook showed that among the countries surveyed, South Africa had the highest number of human resources available for R&D, with a researcher density of 825 per million people, followed by Senegal with 635. At the lower end of the scale Mozambique, Uganda and Ghana had a researcher density of fewer than 25 per million inhabitants.

South Africa and Senegal had the highest percentages of PhDs among R&D staff, scoring 32% and 26% respectively. Several countries (Ghana, Malawi, Mali and Mozambique) had very low percentages of PhDs as well as high percentages with no tertiary education. The document revealed a high participation of women in R&D in several countries. In Tanzania and South Africa, the proportion of women is more than 40%, followed by Mozambique and Uganda.

With the African share of global science continuing to decrease, Innovation Outlook argued that for the continent to become more competitive it needed to increase investment in human capital development, strengthen scientific institutions and equipment, and fund science at significantly higher levels. It also presented a strategy to strengthen African competitiveness through boosting science and technology and reviving the quality of university education.

Other suggestions included designating regional centres of excellence and supporting knowledge production and scientific innovation in specific areas by regional and international organisations such as the African Union and UNESCO. National governments would also have to boost their education and research budgets.

To build the 21st century African developmental state, the economic report called for countries to promote innovation, technological adoption and entrepreneurship, as well as high value-added and employment-generating manufacturing. It pointed out the science sector was dominated by academics employed in government research institutes or public university laboratories.

The role of the private sector in R&D was found to rank higher in Mali, South Africa and Ghana than in other participating countries. Private non-profit institutions play a very modest role in R&D activities in the surveyed countries, with the notable exception of Malawi.

Furthermore, the Outlook pointed to a shift in African research focus from agricultural science to medicine since the 1990s. This problem and a solution was presented in the April report, African Agricultural R&D in the New Millennium: Progress for some, challenges for many, published by Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators, an initiative of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

It referred to the problems of ageing and a decline in qualification levels among Africa's agricultural research workforce. In Senegal, for example, nearly 90% of agricultural research staff are 40 years or older. The report recommended R&D investment focus on three areas: increasing and stabilising research funding, addressing training constraints and improving regional cooperation.

Innovation Outlook found that innovation had been driven more by companies oriented towards client and customer ideas and collaboration, and by acquiring new machinery and equipment rather than by scientific ideas originating from public institutions. It observed that not all innovative organisations perform R&D which raises policy questions about promoting entrepreneurship and R&D, especially among small firms.

The document identified a number of problems facing African innovation, including lack of a qualified workforce and lack of information on technologies and markets, as well as high costs and domination by established enterprises.

If the study was to contribute to better understanding of the interventions required of African governments, international partners and the STI community to develop and apply innovation and science, additional work was required, the report said. This included the use of STI indicators for policy formulation and implementation, strengthening statistical capabilities to improve the quality of data, and a greater investment in human capital development.

Speaking to University World News Akadiri Yessoufou, a researcher at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin, welcomed the report as a "recipe for progress and an African-led effort for diagnosing the status of African science and pointing to its weaknesses, strengths and potential". But Yessoufou said the report would only boost African research and science if it influenced policies that were transformed into action.