Technology transfer: lessons learnt in South Africa

Using the AmaDrum in the Eastern Cape Copyright: CSIR

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Khungeka Njobe, of South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, shares insights on successful technology transfer.

Technology often develops faster than people will take it up. To close the gap and ensure science and technology maximizes its benefit to society, all stakeholders — at community and government levels — must be engaged in the creative process. Identifying a need in a lab or boardroom then developing a suitable product without involving the end-users can lead to low take-up on the ground.

An example is the AmaDrum project, a joint initiative in the early 2000s by South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Department of Health, the Eastern Cape Development Corporation and Technology for Women in Business.

The need was clear and immediate: to combat a massive outbreak of cholera in the Eastern Cape.

The project team proposed the ‘AmaDrum’ — a home water treatment plant comprising a plastic drum with separate compartments for flocculation, sedimentation, filtration and disinfection. It was designed as an interim measure, providing clean, safe drinking water until a potable water supply system could be installed.

Scientists tried and tested the drum, finding it worked well and reporting the technology was straightforward and easy to use.

And it was effective. According to a health worker who met UN representatives, there was not one reported case of cholera after the AmaDrum was introduced.

But long-term take-up of the drums has been limited, and the business charged with making and distributing them has been out of action for more than a year. 

Engagement and planning

Differing expectations from the project team and local communities, insufficient consideration of cultural factors and a lack of resources and forward planning has meant the drums are not being widely used.

The bottom line is that local communities wanted running water in taps. But since, in practice, it could take years before water is supplied to the area, the AmaDrum should have been ideal.

Health workers trained local communities to use the AmaDrum and people commented that for the first time they were drinking clean water.

But their enthusiasm dimmed when the drums were deployed to other areas once the cholera outbreak was over.

The AmaDrums could have provided a longer-term water treatment system, but the Department of Health — charged with distributing them — is not responsible for providing safe drinking water. Instead, environmental health officials focus on finding immediate solutions to health problems.

Another issue was that the drums did not address the basic problem of providing water. Many people still had to travel for half a day to find the water before being able to purify it. And because the number of drums was limited, people were expected to share one between five to six homes. Many people resented this. Some families refused to use the drums while they were in another home, not trusting their neighbours not to poison the water or bewitch them.  

The project also compromised its sustainability by not considering how the drums would be used locally and through poor forward planning. For example, many users said the drums were very heavy to move between households and quite small for a family’s needs. The different layers of sand and stone used for filtering often got mixed during transportation (this problem has since been overcome by installing a separate unit for filtration).

More importantly, the drums needed chemicals that were difficult to get. The Department of Health was to have made the chemicals available at local clinics, but did not put in place adequate arrangements to replenish stocks.

The small company contracted to make and deliver the drums also suffered from limited planning. Transporting the drums — particularly to the more remote rural areas — proved too costly for the small business; and the responsibility for repairing them was always disputed between the manufacturers and users.    

Lessons learnt

The AmaDrum project clearly shows that many factors affect whether a new technology is accepted and used, not just the technology itself.

Selecting a partner with the right capacity and training is key. So is involving the right local stakeholders from the start. These should include a local government structure or non-government organisation that knows the social dynamics and that can help make the technology sustainable.

Still, CSIR has learnt from its mistakes. Following a long-standing partnership with the US-based Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), the council teamed up with MITin 2005to establish a series of ‘FabLabs’ in South Africa. FabLabs — short for ‘fabrication laboratories’ — house advanced equipment and open source software that allow users to build just about anything from inexpensive and readily available materials. Local users are invited to conceptualise, design, develop, fabricate and test different products, creating numerous possibilities for innovative solutions to common problems and needs, particularly in areas suffering ‘technological gaps’.

One FabLab (one of eight established in the country) in Soshanguve, north of Pretoria, has already had success, incubating a science club and inventors forum and completing prototypes for a driver alert device and solar street lamps.

This success is largely attributable to FabLab’s model of technology transfer. So what’s the winning formula? Include local stakeholders; assess whether local infrastructure is ready to absorb a new technology; create awareness of your technology and prepare the community to receive it; train people to use and maintain it; and monitor and evaluate your progress to identify any changes that may be needed.

Khungeka Njobe is CSIR group executive for research and development outcomes and strategic human capital development in Pretoria, South Africa.