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[CAPE TOWN] A wide range of stakeholders has been meeting in Swaziland to help the country develop its first science and technology policy.

The meetings have brought together the government, state-owned companies, the private sector, higher-education institutions, science and technology associations and both houses of parliament. The first draft of the policy is expected to be ready later this year.

According to Mgidi Dlamini, dean of sciences at the University of Swaziland, a national science, technology and innovation (STI) policy is essential and will improve people's living standards.

"We need to specify the tools needed to link STI to national development objectives," he said.

The policy will target areas such as science, education and training, research and development, innovation, industrial development, investment, management, indigenous knowledge systems and the public understanding of science.

"During the consultative meetings, held in April and May 2011, these areas were considered to be key to the development of a viable STI infrastructure for sustainable socio-economic development," Dlamini told SciDev.Net.

He added that the country has relied heavily on neighbouring South Africa for research in the past but must now develop its own science base.

By prioritising the development of improved farming methods, the policy is expected to benefit nearly 80- per cent of Swaziland's estimated one million people living in rural areas who derive their livelihood mainly from agricultural activities, Dlamini said.

Most rural people are engaged in subsistence farming or livestock herding but land productivity is low. Irrigated sugar cane plantations are the second-largest employer after the government and provide the greatest income from exports.

One of the country's biggest science projects is the construction of the Royal Science and Technology Park, which begins this year. Its manager, Moses Zungu, told SciDev.Net that the science policy "will clearly mark the operational boundaries for the science park and provide clear national priorities for the research agenda".

An audit in 2009 by UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) found Swaziland's research capacity to be poor in terms of financial and human resources. Just 0.2 per cent of Swaziland's gross domestic product is spent on science, and there is a shortage of engineering and technology graduates.

"There is no established funding mechanism for research and experimental development at the national level," said the report.