6 July 2011 | EN
Agriculture is a key sector for Africa, but lacks useful indicators of scientific innovation
Flickr/CIAT by Neil Palmer
Policies to stimulate African development require evidence that is difficult to obtain using existing indicators, says policy analyst Watu Wamae.
Evidence-based indicators in science, technology and innovation (STI) help governments across the world to formulate policies and identify opportunities for development. The second round of a survey designed to capture such indicators across Africa, a project sponsored by SIDA, was recently launched in Ethiopia.
But if STI indicators are to contribute effectively to a sustainable path towards social and technological transformation, they need to be sensitive to the African context. Comparisons of indicators such as research and development (R&D) expenditure between African countries must not dominate policy discussions.
Besides, Africa is not well served by borrowing indicators from other regions. There is no point simply reinventing the wheel, but Africa must develop measures of STI activity that accurately reflect African economies and experiences that are likely to be neglected because existing methods to capture them are lacking.
In particular, we need to understand how to convert beneficial technologies into tangible benefits in Africa, and how to capture traditional as well as modern knowledge.
Collecting the right data
To develop effective indicators, African nations must first establish what resources they have and how to make the most of them.
Most African economies are dominated by agriculture, although some resource-rich countries have industries such as petroleum exploration or mining of minerals. In the current context of rapidly emerging economies such as China, the demand for natural resources will continue to grow, and these industries will continue to expand.
This demand is closely connected to the boom in the development of infrastructure across Africa, such as roads and ports, providing opportunities not only for economic activity, but also for learning about technology and applying scientific knowledge.
Ensuring that this development benefits people requires STI indicators that can help policymakers stimulate innovation in these sectors.
Existing methods of data collection provide neat and tidy indicators for manufacturing, among other sectors, but this is clearly not the main driver of most economies in Africa.
And although it is important to strengthen manufacturing, this must not come at the expense of other key sectors, such as agriculture, health, extractive industries and infrastructure development, even though these areas lag behind in useful methods for data collection and analysis.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the contribution of manufacturing to national income has not risen since the 1960s when it stood at 15 per cent. In Kenya, for example, manufacturing accounts for 12 per cent of national income, roughly half the contribution from agriculture (25 per cent) – and Kenya has one of the strongest manufacturing sectors on the continent.
Agriculture can involve the use of sophisticated technologies. And vegetables such as French beans and snow peas grown in Kenya are on supermarket shelves across Europe within 24 hours of being harvested.
But like other sectors, agriculture straddles the formal and informal economies. It also draws on both modern and traditional knowledge. The STI indicators used must capture this duality of knowledge systems, as well as the informality of the economic activity.
Agricultural innovation often results from work in research institutes — but also from the ingenuity of farmers, including those in remote areas, who use and adapt new ideas to suit their needs. These innovators are often part of informal networks that pool ideas and expertise, using them in novel ways to meet specific challenges.
This complexity raises the question of how STI indicators should be developed to capture innovative activity that is highly fragmented and informal, and that often goes undetected by existing processes.
I am not suggesting that those responsible for collecting STI data should single-handedly deal with these issues. There must be broader national ownership of processes to develop such indicators in a systemic, strategic way. People need to understand that, like a national census, the collection of STI data is useful, meaningful and deserving of their cooperation.
Another major gap in Africa's STI system is the lack of specialised capabilities for innovation — the process of converting knowledge to tangible benefits for people and communities.
This transformation depends on human capabilities or skills that can connect scientific output to local demand for solutions to existing problems. Without these capabilities, the products of scientific research will just gather dust.
Policymakers have tended to focus on capabilities for R&D to promote STI. But we need to give serious attention to the capabilities needed to translate the outputs from R&D into usable and accessible solutions to existing problems challenges — such as technical, engineering and managerial skills.
Producing STI indicators that overlook these capabilities is not likely to lead to evidence-based policies that can effectively leverage innovation for development.
Innovation is not just a technical process, but also a social and economic process of introducing beneficial technologies and helping countries achieve development. This is important for the shift from R&D as a determinant of progress to the broader perspective of innovation as a process of social transformation.
STI indicators must provide policymakers with the means to formulate evidence-based policy that is effective in mobilising innovation for development.
Watu Wamae is innovation and technology policy analyst for the non-profit research institute RAND Europe.
Nawaz Sharif ( United States of America )
6 July 2011
Yes, I agree that developing countries need indicators that are relevant for them. All of the science, technology and innovation related indicators being promoted by international organizations are only relevant for developed countries. I have learned from Nobel Laureate Mohammad Yunus's premise for establishing the 'grameen bank' that — "Established systems only help those already established!" You may be interested to visit my blog () on technological innovation: http://mns-technologicalinnovation.blogspot.com/
I.Butare ( Senegal )
8 July 2011
Interesting. Can you give some concrete examples of indicators relevant to African realities in which predominate the agriculture and the informal sectors. Thank you
Linda Nordling ( South Africa )
11 July 2011
Interesting piece - I also would like to have some concrete examples of the indicators relevant to Africa. A lot has been written about the need for such indicators, but little or any progress has been made on identifying what they are. The second phase of ASTII is working on this, I understand, but it's not productive to reject the indicators that we already have - such as R&D investment as a proportion of GDP, researchers per million people etc. There is a danger that the emphasis on African indicators will lead to a marginalisation of the continent in the global endeavour for knowledge. What is needed is better understanding of the shortcomings of the existing indicators. For now they are the best we have.
Michelle Willmers ( South Africa )
11 July 2011
Great to see this initiative getting coverage. The Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme (a four-country research initiative hosted by UCT) is exploring complemenary metrics that could align quality concerns and reward systems with the need for a more Afrocentric approach to measuring research output. We would be very interested to know of any other initiatives exploring this terrain.
mansoorshahab ( IPM | China (including Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau) )
11 July 2011
STI perspective is definitely not appropriate for developing nations but DUI (Doing, Utilizing, Innovating) is an appropriate set of indicators would be the one concerened with technology adoption and adaptation.
LMudie ( United Kingdom )
11 July 2011
It might perhaps be a missed opportunity to illustrate this story with a rather iron-age image of a woman, given your site's role in questioning and questioning typical north-south dynamics and promoting women as scientists. What about an African woman in a white coat in a lab instead?
Egbetokun ( NATIONAL CENTER FOR TECHNOLOGY MANAGEMENT, FEDERAL MINISTRY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY | Nigeria )
11 July 2011
Watu's arguments stand to reason.
watu wamae ( United Kingdom )
12 July 2011
Many thanks for your useful comments. I would like follow up on the request for concrete examples of useful indicators. There has been a plethora of literature on the question, but hardly anything on solutions. Offering practical insights on how to go about capturing phenomena that are important in African contexts, but for which adequate indicators or metrics have not been developed would be a useful starting point. Contributions to this would be great. I look forward to results of the scaprogramme and other initiatives.
BINDIR ( Nigeria )
12 July 2011
All these are debatable, but we must understand that indicators are measurable elements to see if something is happening and working or not. Since Africa has a "real"problem of poverty, number of local poverty workers might be an indicator directed at changing things. Amazingly, very few if any African University has a Faculty or Department of Poverty Eradication Studies. Also things like publications in rural water supply, number of clean equipped and well staffed clinics where women can safely deliver, number of primary schools that have libraries, secondary schools that have well equipped science laboratories, etc etc. After some few years of these, then "more formal" indicators like published papers, patents etc may apply
Tamali ( Uganda )
15 July 2011
Keeping arecord of indeginous kowledge may be one area to consider
Agoro Olayiwola ( Federal Ministry of Science and Technology | Nigeria )
8 August 2011
I really dont know why Africa should develop it own indicators. It is a known fact that the developed countries developed those indicators to somehow favour its own situation, but we need to be honest about so many things even if the situation is such that the indicators are not captured properly, the right data should be provided rather than debating on whether we should have one or the other. it is really painful when you see things working scientifically in the industralised nations and not working in the developing nations. This is a food for thought.
Nawaz Sharif ( United States of America )
2 April 2012
I have some suggestions for consideration by various science and technology policymaking bodies trying to integrate the suggestions of various International development organisations and the imperatives for developing countries. If interested, please send me an Email , and I will give you a PDF version of my latest paper "Technological Innovation Governance for Winning the Future."
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