In efforts aimed at boosting innovation, the Ugandan government has made a bold move and set aside funds to help innovators to commercialise their products.
The government has committed 30 billion Uganda shillings (about US$9 million) to support innovations and technology, and has allocated an additional US$4 million to finance the talented youth in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, according to the country’ 2016/2017 budget statement.
“We shall give support to innovation by building a critical mass of highly skilled ICT, science, technology and engineering professionals to drive industrialisation,” said Matia Kasaija, the minister of finance, planning and economic development in a speech on the budget read on 8th June 2017.
This first round of funds will be given mostly to individual innovators who already have products in place.
Critics of the initiative
Critics say that giving these funds to individuals rather than institutions undermines efforts to build an innovation ecosystem where innovations can be nurtured, and innovators are supported.
Putting the funds at the end of the innovation cycle is not what governments in the South should do, critics add. But the officials in charge of the initiative disagree.
“We have been given instructions to support innovations that are already in place.”
Elioda Tumwesigye, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation
“We have been given instructions to support innovations that are already in place so that the scientists can actualise their innovations,” said Elioda Tumwesigye, the minister for science, technology and innovation (STI) at the 5th CAMTech Uganda annual meeting at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) in August this year.
Peter Ndemere, the executive secretary of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology, tells SciDev.Net that there have been so many products produced by Ugandan scientists and innovators that hardly reach consumers.
“Now, the president wants to see these products off the shelf and graduated to the local, regional and international markets,” Ndemere notes. “I think this also represents a policy shift; it is not to just do research but for income generation and industrialisation.”
Wrong products for investments?
Some of the products to be funded include banana juices made by William Kyamuhangire, an associate professor and manager of the Food Technology and Business Incubation Centre, Makerere University; Artavol, a malaria prevention beverage by Patrick Ogwang, a pharmacist and lecturer at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), and Tooke, an instant matooke (banana) flour by Florence Isabirye Muranga, head of the Presidential Initiative on Banana Industrial Development.
Other innovators to be supported are Byarugaba Bazirake, the director of Afribanana Products Ltd, for his vacuum sealed bananas matooke agribusiness incubator, and Moses Kizza Musaazi, a professor at the Faculty of Technology, Makerere University, for Makapads, a sanitary napkin made from papyrus.
But some critics are wondering why most of the innovations that are to be commercialised are edible products.
“Most of the products that are going to receive this funding include juices and wines and these cannot even lead to industrialisation or take Uganda to the middle-income status that the government is promoting,” says John Kintu, a young innovator.
What needs to be supported are commercially viable innovations that will revolutionalise major sectors of the country, he adds.
The innovation fund, which is a brainchild of President Yoweri Museveni, is also aimed at promoting Uganda-made products through the ‘Buy Uganda, Build Uganda’ or BUBU policy that took effect on 1 August 2017.
The initiative, which is expected to promote patriotism, also seeks to boost technological innovations to drive economic development in Uganda.
“It should be the government funding the initial stages of innovations including the end user acceptability studies.”
Nuriat Nambogo, CAMTech Uganda
Some critics worry that this process of supporting individual scientists may well not be sustainable and could favour just a few innovators.
“This funding should not be to individuals and if it is given to a project it should have deliverables and in a given timeframe,” says Moses Mulumba, the executive director of the Uganda-based Centre for Health Human Rights and Development.
Mulumba tells SciDev.Net some people may get the funding because they are privileged. Instead, he is vouching for funding through a system, preferably a university setting.
Data Santorino, a paediatrician and a lecturer at the MUST and one of the innovators behind the augmented infant resuscitator that monitors in real-time and captures data on the quality of resuscitation of babies, says Uganda is not short of ideas and prototypes.
Santorino also heads the annual CAMTech Uganda Hack-a-thons, an event where hundreds of undergraduate students participate to showcase medical technology developments.
It is at the early stage that governments in the South should put their money, not at the end because most traditional funders position themselves to take on approved proof of concepts or almost finished products, he explains.
Nuriat Nambogo, a research and grants development officer at CAMTech Uganda, adds that many innovators are asked to do initial acceptability studies, but they do not have the money to do that. “It should be the government funding the initial stages of innovations including the end user acceptability studies,” says Nambogo.
Research for promotions or innovation?
According to Santorino, scientists in academic institutions mainly teach and conduct research for publications to get promotions and peer recognition, an issue that needs to be looked into.
“Maybe we should have an incentive system structured differently in academic institutions. An innovation has commercial value and industrial application but a publication has knowledge value,” Santorino explains. “When we reach an extent where they will use commercial output from innovators other than publication, we shall see more innovations come out.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.