Innovation council to boost university-industry links

The 19 member countries of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, COMESA, which has a total population of around 400 million people, have formed an innovation council to boost university-industry linkages.

The council was launched on 8 April in Kampala, capital of Uganda, at the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. It is the first step in implementing the COMESA roadmap, adopted at the Kampala summit last year, aimed at strengthening links and partnerships between higher education institutions, research centres and industry.

According to a COMESA media release: “The creation of the innovation council represents a landmark in Africa’s institutional history because it is the first major political recognition of the critical role that technological innovation can play in enhancing Africa’s global competitiveness.”

The COMESA roadmap includes the establishment of a University for Regional Integration, with a component of an academy of sciences and regional science, technology and innovation parks and clusters.

Chaired by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the innovation council comprises eight eminent scientists from COMESA states: Dhanjay Jhurry (Mauritius), Jonathan M Tambatamba (Zambia), Aggrey Ambali (Malawi), Lydia Makhubu (Swaziland), Marie Claire Yandju (Congo), Meoli Kashorda (Kenya), Silas Lwakabamba (Rwanda) and Venasius Baryamureeba (Uganda).

They will advise on science and technology policies and develop plans to harness technologies developed at universities and research centres to enhance industrial production and commerce.

The scientists are also expected to draw up programmes to foster the development of small and medium-sized enterprises, and decide how best to apply innovations in member states. Another of the council's tasks will be to select the annual COMESA innovation award winners.

COMESA, which is headquartered in the Zambian capital Lusaka, was formed in 1994 to replace its forerunner, the Preferential Trade Area, and consists of 19 countries: Burundi, the Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Kenyan scientist Calestous Juma, director of the science, technology and globalisation project at Harvard University, welcomed the formation of the innovation council, saying to University World News:

"This is a major step in strengthening innovation-based institutions in Africa. It is also significant that COMESA, as a trade organisation, has chosen to embrace science and technology by strengthening the participation of science and higher education ministries in its decision-making."

Quoting Juma, the media release welcomed the all-African makeup of the advisory council as signalling a break from the past, when such advisory functions would typically have been performed by consultants or experts from international agencies.

Juma pointed out that the council’s work would be guided by COMESA's decisions, so its agenda would be defined by what the heads of state prioritised.

Asked how the innovation council would cooperate with the African Union's Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation (AUPSTI), Juma – who is AUPSTI co-chair – said: "The panel is an ad hoc body that will finish its work this year.” Its report will be presented to heads of state, who will issue guidance to regional bodies and countries for action.

“The ideas identified by the panel will find their way into the activities of regional organisations like COMESA. Conversely, work in regional bodies will also influence the agenda of the African Union.”

Dr Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at the National Research Centre in Egypt, welcomed the formation of the council as a step along the road for COMESA countries in moving from resource-based to innovation-led, knowledge-based economies.

"The council should focus on strategies to boost universities as engines of economic transformation and as incubators for science-based businesses, rather than to simply produce job seekers or unemployable graduates."