Technology transfer boost for least developed countries

Africa’s ‘least developed countries’ (LDCs) are to benefit from the launch of a United Nations’ Technology Bank in Turkey, which aims to drive science, technology and innovation and promote sustainable development – with African universities playing a key role.

The UN Technology Bank, located in the Turkish city of Gebze, about 30 miles south east of Istanbul, was launched on 4 June, according to UN News. Modelled on the United Nations University, it will be a capacity-building institution focused on improving LDCs’ scientific research and innovation base as well as promoting networking among LDCs’ researchers, universities and research institutions, along with helping LDCs access and utilise critical technologies.

“Technology has to diffuse to all communities to enable them to leapfrog traditional development challenges,” said UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed at the launch.

LDCs comprise around 880 million people or 12% of the world’s population. Approximately 80% (38 out of the 48) of the LDCs are African. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development projections, by 2025 the LDC group will be composed of 32 countries, and all but two (Cambodia and Haiti) will be in Africa.

Overcoming constraints

"The Technology Bank will help the LDCs to overcome the constraints and bottlenecks, accelerate technology transfer from more developed countries (in both North and South) to the LDCs, and facilitate the exchange of best practice in science, technology and innovation policies between countries," said Xiaolan Fu, director and member of the governing council of the Technology Bank and founding director of the Technology and Management Centre for Development, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

"It is a facilitator and an accelerator. It will serve as an important driver of technical progress and sustainable development in the LDCs."

According to a United Nations study analysing the feasibility of the technology bank, weak technological infrastructure and limited scientific human resources make it difficult for LDCs to adapt and absorb existing technologies to upgrade industries, partner with high tech businesses and contribute to sustainable development.

All of the least developed countries combined published only 1,538 scientific and technical journal articles in 2011. Although up from 874 in 2001, this constitutes only 0.185% of global scientific productivity. The number of articles in scientific journals per one million people for LDCs averaged under two during the period from 2001 to 2011.

According to the report, the LDCs also lag significantly behind other countries in terms of scientific impact of the research undertaken and numbers of patents.

African universities

"African universities play a key role in the success of the Technology Bank," according to Rosibel Ochoa, a member of the bank’s governing council and associate vice-chancellor for technology partnerships at the University of California, Riverside, United States.

"They provide the knowledge, technology and human capital in the form of graduates that will constitute the workforce that will ensure that technologies developed in the country or transferred into the country are successfully commercialised."

Ochoa said the bank will facilitate access to journal publications in African universities at no cost to these universities to help disseminate knowledge among researchers.

"In addition, the bank is committed to support best practices, knowledge sharing and technology transfer, which could be translated to promotion of faculty and researcher exchanges, funding for acceleration of technology transfer and capacity building," Ochoa said.

According to Fu, LDCs’ universities and research institutions must be encouraged to play a more active role in innovation and technology development and a first step to doing this is to engage with the Technology Bank.

"Universities have a dual role to play in the developing countries: not only creating new knowledge, but more importantly to work with the local industries to absorb and make adaptations of the foreign technologies transferred from international sources via various channels including the Technology Bank,” said Fu, who is the principal investigator of the ‘Diffusion of Innovation in Low Income Countries’ project, which suggests that the proportion of firms collaborating with local universities is less than 5% in Ghana.

"It’s not because firms have no such need, but because the universities are either not interested or they do not know each other," Fu said.

"Therefore, activities of the Technology Bank should engage the universities in LDCs to encourage them to make a greater contribution to the industrial development in their countries," Fu said.