Indigenous knowledge can help researchers solve crises

African researchers have been urged to seek inspiration from indigenous knowledge and innovation systems in order to make headway in resolving the continent’s development problems.

The call was made by Dr Chika Ezeanya, a senior lecturer at the University of Rwanda, during the 14th General Assembly of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, or CODESRIA, held from 8-12 June in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Colonial legacy

In a paper, “Research, Innovation and Indigenous Knowledge in Africa: In search of nexus”, Ezeanya said indigenous knowledge has been left out in the cold by higher education and research platforms in Africa, mainly because of a failure by governments to reform the colonial foundations of education.

“Contemporary realities of continued dependence on external actors for funding of research in Africa have almost wiped out indigenous knowledge from tertiary institutions.”

According to Ezeanya, the holistic adoption of Western curricula and research agendas has established benchmarks that have ensured the absence of indigenous knowledge in teaching, learning and research across the continent.

She defined indigenous knowledge as local knowledge that has been generated by a particular society over time.

Amid efforts to persuade African researchers to go back to the drawing board, Ezeanya pointed out that dependency had never generated development. There were no records, she told delegates, to show that today’s rich countries were paid money in order to get them to present levels of development.

Innovation key to prosperity

The paper noted that innovation in science and technology was the key factor determining the rate of nations’ economic growth.

“Research, the ability to turn ideas into useful new products, services and ways of doing things, is the wellspring of prosperity for any developed country,” said Ezeanya, quoting a study by the British innovation charity Nesta, Innovation Drives Economic Growth.

According to the Nesta report, technological innovation has driven improved economic growth in most countries globally. In essence, technology implies the application of scientific knowledge and also includes invention, innovation and creation of a new product or method.

Taking into account that innovation is often a product of in-depth knowledge and expertise in a particular field, people who are well versed in indigenous knowledge and who also understand their environment well, are more likely to become innovators.

But for Ezeanya, in most African countries there had been an almost total disregard for what is authentically indigenous African development in agriculture, science, mathematics, geography, arts and medicine, as well as in other areas.

“There has been detachment of research from people’s lived experiences to the extent that African researchers are currently struggling for relevance and to have the masses appreciate their research output,” Ezeanya told the conference.

Disconnect widening

Unfortunately, the situation is not about to improve in the near future. The disconnect between research and reality is widening, as very few local researchers and academics have reacquainted themselves with Africa’s knowledge systems and research.

According to UNESCO, new insights reveal that development interventions in many developing countries have failed to induce people to participate because of the absence of instruments and mechanisms that enable them to use their own knowledge.

This certainly seems to be the case for Africa, where most indigenous researchers are reluctant to tackle challenges facing the continent unless they are to be funded or to enter into some kind of partnership with Western institutions.

Such findings were observed last year by the World Bank and Elsevier in a study, A Decade of Development in Sub-Saharan African Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Research.

Although the share of global research from Sub-Saharan Africa had in the last decade risen from 0.44% to 0.72%, a large percentage of the researchers were not local or were local people publishing in partnership with colleagues from Western Europe or the United States.

In 2012, according to the World Bank report, 79%, 70% and 45% of all research by Southern Africa, East Africa, and West and Central Africa respectively were produced through international collaboration.

Based on their publication history, 39% and 48% of all East and Southern African researchers respectively were from universities and research centres in Western Europe, the report noted.

Commenting on the issue, Ezeanya told delegates that despite decades of graduating first degree and postgraduate students in Africa, there remained low levels of innovation and invention across the continent.

She argued that the persistence of Africa’s slow drive towards technological advancement pointed to the region’s poor research and development agenda.

Indigenous knowledge successes

Highlighting some of the African indigenous knowledge areas ignored by African universities, Ezeanya pointed to successful traditional farming practices – especially indigenous mixed cropping systems applied by various communities in East Africa.

In Chad, local farmers had been using an indigenous rain-fed irrigation system to successfully grow crops in patched desert lands, but the method was unsuccessfully replaced by modern commercial irrigation methods.

According to a World Bank report, the government of Chad and donors assumed that farmers would benefit from commercial irrigated agriculture but failed to develop an understanding of how irrigation fits into farmers’ economic strategies.

African mathematics is also an overlooked field of study, although in African art such as textiles, wood carvings and mural decorations from diverse cultures and people groupings across the continent there can be found consistent, in-depth geometrical expressions.

“Africa’s numbering system also displays a surprising similarity across several ethnicities and cultures, providing a strong platform for further research into the field,” noted Ezeanya.

African countries have the potential to discover herbs, seeds, trees and even clay with healing properties.

According to Ezeanya, scientifically proven African indigenous remedies include the South African Hoodia gordinii for the treatment of obesity, a Type II diabetes management drug from Kenya and a herbal cure for impotence from Congo Brazzaville, to mention just a few.

An integrated approach

Ezeanya presented a strong case for promoting indigenous research in Africa, assuming that prior knowledge increases students’ ability to grasp materials taught to them.

But the crux of the matter is that decades of negligence have catapulted most of Africa’s indigenous ideas into the realm of the unknown.

Probably worse, without robust government support, higher education research in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa has taken the form of an outside-in approach, whereby the agenda of what is to be researched is set by donors.

In order to establish positive research outcomes in Africa, there is an urgent need to integrate Western research techniques with life-transforming indigenous knowledge in different fields of human endeavour, in order to increase innovation and creativity across the continent.