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There are big plans afoot to get African science to the market place, but why wait for continent-wide resolutions, says Linda Nordling.

Research is often expected to come before innovation. So it is not surprising that African policymakers were quicker to draw up a blueprint for boosting science than one for taking it to the marketplace.

But in January 2008, African Union (AU) heads of state finally adopted an action plan for the Accelerated Industrial Development of Africa. The plan, known as AIDA (which incidentally is Kiswahili for reward), is jam-packed with initiatives to improve the commercial uptake of research results. And next month (January 2009) a strategy for implementing it will be presented to the AU presidential summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Focus on the market

There is plenty of synergy between AIDA and the Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA) for science development, which African science ministers adopted in 2005. For example, both support creating African 'centres of excellence' in scientific research, and increasing countries' science spend to 1 per cent of gross domestic product.

But where the CPA aims to generate useful science, AIDA focuses on bringing it to the market. It outlines an African Technology Innovation Initiative that will create African networks to design, test and certify products, support businesses and transfer technology.

AIDA's immediate priorities include setting up chairs of innovation in African universities — a collaborative project already underway under the direction of UNIDO, the UN's industrial development arm.

Longer-term goals include establishing regional centres for technology foresight, and introducing innovation incentives such as tax breaks for companies performing research and development.

Finding the funds

The implementation plan also explores funding options for AIDA. It suggests tapping into local stock markets (a risky notion perhaps, considering what has happened to international finance), wooing development finance institutions like the African Development Bank and setting up national funds.

It also proposes establishing a continental fund for industrial development programmes — mirroring the CPA's proposal for an African Science and Innovation Fund (ASIF).

But as anyone following ASIF knows, setting up continental funds is not easy. Science ministers removed a proposal to create the ASIF from the agenda of the AU 2007 summit because they felt the plan was too vague to pass to presidents. Since then, education has been added to ASIF’s remit and the African Development Bank is undertaking a feasibility study on hosting it (see 'Idea for pan-African science fund gains ground').

With the global financial crisis beating down on African countries and foreign donors, AIDA’s continental fund is likely to face a bumpy road. But it would be a pity if funding fears stall AIDA's implementation.

Indeed, introducing elements of AIDA into national policies may cost African countries less money than they expect. A lack of funding is not an insurmountable hurdle for industrial development, says Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University, United States. "The main barriers are institutional arrangements and relevant skills," he says.

Juma points out that Africa's challenges in putting knowledge to use are not so very different from those faced by developed countries, many of which have spent plenty of money trying to bridge their 'innovation gaps' — with scant results.

More than just money

Somebody who has managed to 'do more with less' is Florence Wambugu, Kenya's 'banana mama', who has used simple tissue culture technology to improve banana crops (see 'Q&A: African Agriculture with Florence Wambugu').

South Africa's experience also shows that money alone is not a solution. South African research is better resourced than that of most other African countries, and its industry is comparatively well developed. Yet its efforts to boost innovation — including an 'innovation fund' for inventors and business start-ups — have so far failed to impress. South Africa is now setting up a Technology Innovation Agency to bring all its innovation activities under one roof, in the hope that this will improve the return on these investments.

Partnerships between developed and developing countries are one potentially successful approach. . For example, the British Council’s African Knowledge Transfer Partnership is piloting projects that partner the private sector with universities in Africa and the UK to commercialise products. The programme is up and running in Uganda, where it is funding JDG Africa Ltd, a company that produces raw salt, to collaborate with Mbarara University of Science and Technology. Together they are developing methods for iodisation.

Innovative Nigeria

As policymakers wait for a workingcontinental innovation agenda, it is clear that to boost entrepreneurship on the continent they will themselves have to be innovative.

One country leaving the beaten path is Nigeria. Over recent years, it has developed an impressive set of fiercely-nationalistic research projects with huge potential for local application. For example, using its own satellites, the country has studied environmental degradation in the Niger Delta.

Led by former science minister Turner Isoun, Nigerian research institutes have focused on research with immediate impact. Isoun himself has pioneered the domestication of bush rats, a staple food in the region.

The current science minister, Grace Ekphiwre, also says she wants to invest in science that reaps sustainable profits from the country’s rich natural resources.

But it is the vision of a 'mega science park', on the road linking the country's capital (Abuja) with its airport, which is raising the bar for innovation-planning in sub-Saharan Africa.

The area is already home to the Obasanjo Space Centre (the control station for Nigeria's satellites), the Abuja campus of the African University of Science and Technology and the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure.

Umar Bindir, director of the Nigerian science and technology ministry, wants to bring in more scientists, and more research, and put them in a setting that can help take science to the marketplace. For example, he wants plant researchers who are improving tomatoes to live side by side with the farmers planting and selling them at local markets.

Nigeria may have some way to go to fulfil Bindir's vision. But its experience shows that you do not need to wait for continental resolutions to be passed before promoting innovation in your country. All it takes is a few good ideas — literally.

Linda Nordling is former editor of Research Africa.