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African innovation won't flourish unless more attention is paid to creating and sustaining markets for it, argues Linda Nordling.

A little over two years ago, I wrote about how African countries can bring scientific innovations to the market, and argued that they should not wait for lumbering continental initiatives to start capitalising on their growing knowledge base.

Innovation, and its role in economic development, resurfaced this month at the second meeting of the Committee on Development Information, Science and Technology (CODIST-II), held on 2–5 May in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The four-day meeting brought scientists and policymakers together to discuss how to turn Africa's golden ideas into solid gold. But to do this, African innovation policy needs to set its sights on the market for these ideas.

Innovation culture

A comprehensive study published in December last year in the journal Science described how 25 African health innovations are failing to be commercialised.

These ranged from a dipstick test for the parasitic disease schistosomiasis to several drug candidates extracted from African plants. The barriers to reaching a market included a lack of support, such as venture capital. But an equally big stumbling block was the lack of an innovation culture among African policymakers.

Discussions about innovation tend to focus on the producers of knowledge, and what can be done to support the smooth progression of discoveries to the hospital bed, the factory or the production line.

This usually involves setting aside funding for innovative start-up companies, updating and enforcing intellectual property laws, training scientists to see the potential of their research, and cutting red tape for small businesses.

These are essential for innovations to be picked up by individuals, companies or government agencies — the last, vital link in the innovation chain.

But unless some thought is also given to whether there is a demand for innovations in the first place, such initiatives could be a waste of both time and money.

Trade or aid

Unfortunately, such market thinking has become separated from science policy in Africa. This is partly a result of the continent's turbulent political history.

In colonial times, scientific work was linked to the needs and economic imperatives of the colonial masters — better cotton varieties, for example, or an understanding of the diseases that decimated their workforce.

Although geared towards foreign priorities, the science systems inherited by young African democracies were also built around businesses, mainly export industries.

But with the rise of development aid in the second half of the twentieth century, science and business were separated. By the end of the century, priorities had shifted towards science for poverty eradication and sustainable development.

Rather than drive the innovation for development agenda, trade became separated from it, severing the link between science and business.

Many development projects do of course provide great benefits in Africa, but aid often invites neglect for what will support them in the long run. In contrast, market thinking involves long-term thinking — ensuring a demand and an enabling environment for innovation.

There are too many tales of aid investments backfiring in Africa because of a lack of long-term thinking: computers sent to schools that don't have electricity; satellite stations built in countries without the skills to maintain them; and many foreign-trained African graduates unable to work in their home countries because there are no jobs in their field.

Joined-up thinking

This must change if Africa's innovation potential is to be unleashed. Development agencies can do their part by evaluating the long-term viability of their programmes in Africa, and aid and trade initiatives should find ways of working together, for instance through public–private partnerships.

China's strategy of investing in African science training and infrastructure in areas where it can benefit, such as mining for rare metals, may be ruthless in its self-interest, but at least it may stop skills and equipment going to waste.

Ultimately, although foreigners can do their bit to help, the main responsibility for getting Africa's innovation wheels spinning lies with its own leaders.

This will require interventions on many levels, not least governance. But African countries can start by joining up their policies on science, technology and development so they all work towards the same goals — while remembering to think about markets.

This is exactly what leaders discussed at the recent CODIST-II meeting. The UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) has developed an African innovation network, and some countries — including Burkina Faso, Mali and Togo — have started to adapt it for their own needs.

The effects of such efforts are not instantaneous. Good innovation systems don't spring up overnight. But China, as well as Brazil and South Korea, provide proof that they can be built.

African countries have the youth, the natural riches and the ingenuity to follow these countries' path to development. What they need is some joined-up thinking.


Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, the Guardian, Nature and others.