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  • Africa needs local capacity for innovation research

Building a community of innovation scholars will promote locally relevant research and policy, say Bitrina Diyamett and Erika Kraemer-Mbula.

Africa has made remarkable progress in building capacity in natural and engineering sciences over the past decade. The endorsement of Africa's Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA) — which focuses on developing scientific and research capacity — by all African countries in 2005, shows continent-wide recognition of the importance of science and technology.

Moreover, many African countries have increased their investment in research and development (R&D). But such advances will continue to have limited impact on the social and economic development of the continent without efforts to increase the capacity for locally relevant research on innovation and innovation policy.

Using knowledge

Most endeavours to boost R&D have poverty alleviation as a major goal, but they do not automatically translate into income growth, job creation, quality health services and other basic needs.

It is only through innovation — the application of knowledge for generating new and improved goods, services and processes in enterprises (public and private), farming and governance sectors that scientific knowledge can be put to practical use to address the needs and improve the wellbeing of societies and natural systems.

Converting scientific knowledge into innovation is a complex process, influenced by many social, economic and political forces. Moreover, innovation is more likely to emerge when knowledge (not only scientific) is exchanged and recombined, and when different actors such as universities, enterprises and civil society interact and learn from each other in what is called the "innovation system".

Innovation scholars around the world have been studying this process since the 1970s, and their role is increasingly important in informing strategic policy decisions.

But innovation is a neglected area in the African research community and it seems this is not an oversight, but a consequence of the limited pool of African skills and scholars that are active in the field.

This was at the top of the agenda when top world authorities on innovation and development, as well as emerging African authorities in science, technology and innovation (ST&I) research recently met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (21-23 March) to initiate a research network — the African Network for Learning, Innovation and Competence Building Systems (AfricaLics) — in an attempt to build capacity on the continent for studies on innovation systems.

Context dependent

Why does Africa need its own community of innovation scholars? As knowledge is exchanged and recombined, innovation activities become dependent on the context where such exchanges take place, and therefore on the culture as well as the socioeconomic environment of a particular country or region. 

Home-grown knowledge on innovation matters. In less mature economies grounded in agricultural and natural resource-based activities, such as those in Africa, most innovation takes place outside formal R&D processes — through interaction and learning. But little is known about such grassroots, community-led innovation processes. Local researchers can shed light on them, and complement current efforts to measure R&D as featured in the first African Innovation Outlook report.

It is important to apply the theoretical foundation of innovation to the context of Africa — and this is the capability that AfricaLics will seek to create.

For example, the network will map ST&I research capacity in Africa, developing a database of scholars and organisations that actively contribute to the field of innovation. It will organise regular research training programmes for young innovation scholars (Africa-lics Academies), and stimulate the establishment of masters and PhD programmes in ST&I at African universities.

The network also aims to build the capacity of policymakers to design and implement evidence-based innovation policies through targeted training courses. And it will provide a platform for interactive learning between the research community and governments.

Building expertise

The long-term objective of this network is to enable Africa to develop a critical mass of expertise in studying, monitoring and evaluating its innovation systems. The secretariat of the network will be hosted by the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), an inter-governmental policy research and training organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Future dialogues facilitated by the network will focus on policy training — structured to take into account different interests and contexts in the region — offering policymakers intensive exposure to conceptual issues in innovation and development, especially the role of innovation policy research in evidence-based policymaking.

Some African countries have developed policies on science, technology and innovation — others are busy doing so. However, the process of policy formulation is rarely evidence-based due to the scarcity of data and research available to inform these practices.

While international expertise provides a valuable platform for cooperation and exchange of information, the process of policy formulation, revision, update and reformulation, must be driven by those who experience changes on the continent.

This requires not only the development of new capacities, but also consolidating ongoing efforts and strengthening linkages between experts in different African countries.

The development of a community of innovation systems scholars in Africa will allow African countries to design policies suitable and responsive to their own needs, and instigate corrective measures to ensure the smooth production, dissemination and use of knowledge for economic development.

Bitrina Diyamett is executive director of STIPRO and chairperson of the scientific board of AfricaLics. Erika Kraemer-Mbula is senior researcher at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation (IERI), Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa, and member of the scientific board of AfricaLics. Bitrina can be contacted at bitrind@yahoo.comorbitrind@gmail.com. Erika can be contacted at erika@ieri.org.za.

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