Indigenous knowledge must be harvested for development

There is a rich body of indigenous knowledge embodied in Africa’s cultural and ecological diversities, and African people have drawn on this knowledge for hundreds of years to solve specific developmental and environmental problems.

There are well-documented examples to show the positive impact of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) on Africa’s development.

The World Bank, which launched the Indigenous Knowledge for Development Programme in 1998, documented several cases to illustrate how IKS can play a crucial role in development.

The examples include: improving primary education by using local language as a means of instruction in West Africa; provision of primary health care to help reduce child mortality in Eritrea and maternal mortality in Uganda; empowering women in Senegal to facilitate the eradication of female circumcision; helping communities in Mozambique to manage coastal natural resources; and using traditional medicinal plants in Zimbabwe to treat malaria.

IKS can also serve as an important tool to assist Africa in coping with climate change. In Nigeria, for example, indigenous methods of weather forecasting are used by farmers to complement crop-planning activities.


But IKS in Africa face several threats.

First, indigenous knowledge is always passed by word of mouth from one generation to another. Many of the bearers of indigenous knowledge are from the older generation and now find it difficult to communicate their beliefs and practices to the scientifically educated younger generation; once the older generation passes away, the knowledge disappears with them.

Second, there is still reticence in the use of IKS, which is considered anecdotal and not scientific, in the development process. Third, there is a real danger that IKS in Africa are being wiped out as a result of the rapid changes occurring from imported economic, cultural and political development models through globalisation.

It is imperative therefore that, without delay, IKS in Africa be protected, documented, studied, modified if necessary and then widely disseminated to promote development.

Institutionalising IKS

Universities in Africa are the obvious institutions to undertake this important task. However, African universities have a poor record of achievements in research, innovation and community engagement.

Some work on IKS, for example on traditional healers and the use of medicinal plants, has been carried out in African universities, but it seems disparate. For IKS to be truly effective a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach should be adopted.

IKS should be embedded in all university teaching, research and outreach activities. This could be achieved by creating an institutional centre dedicated to IKS.

The University of Botswana recently created a Centre for Scientific Research, Indigenous Knowledge and Innovation (CesrIKi), which attempts to link scientific research with IKS. It has undertaken several surveys documenting IKS in the country and promoting IKS among communities.

The universities of North West, Limpopo and Venda in South Africa have also partnered to set up a Centre of Excellence in Indigenous Knowledge Studies. There are centres devoted to IKS in some other universities in Africa as well.

Another model for institutionalising IKS is by creating a national centre. The Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Ghana is an independent, not-for-profit organisation, its mission being to examine, preserve, adapt and use the local knowledge of various communities in Ghana and the West African region.

Similar centres have been created in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Madagascar and Nigeria.

Protection of rights

An important issue with regard to IKS is the protection of the rights of indigenous people over their traditional knowledge.

Many indigenous communities are concerned about the appropriation of their knowledge by researchers, within and outside Africa, without permission or respect for customary law and with little benefit to them.

As a result of trade agreements under the World Trade Organisation, the use of powerful instruments such as copyright and patents is accelerating the use and privatisation of indigenous knowledge. However, it is questionable whether such intellectual property rights, appropriate for commercial inventions and granting exclusive rights, are also appropriate for indigenous knowledge.

The complicated issue of protecting the rights and privileges of the rightful holders of IKS has been studied in other parts of the world and Africa could learn from them.

Future development agenda

In shaping the future development agenda for Africa, it must be recognised that for the continent to meet its development challenges, especially the eradication of poverty, it is vital to integrate indigenous knowledge in the development process. Unfortunately, global support for IKS in Africa appears to be waning.

The World Bank, which got interested in promoting indigenous knowledge in the mid-1990s and published some excellent reports, has not had any publication on IKS since 2004. Nuffic of The Netherlands created an Indigenous Knowledge Unit in the early 1990s and it used to regularly publish reports, especially on Africa. It ceased its activities in the early 2000s.

There is therefore a need for donors and development agencies to support Africa’s development through its indigenous knowledge systems.

Both China and India have a rich and long tradition of IKS and both are assisting Africa in its development. IKS can be a very fruitful area for collaboration. They can advise on how to institutionalise IKS and share their experiences in the translation of IKS research results into national development policies and in the protection of indigenous knowledge rights.

* Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former secretary general of the Association of African Universities and former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. This paper was presented at the British Council’s Going Global 2013 conference in Dubai from 4-6 March as part of a debate on importing knowledge systems to solve local problems.