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[HARARE] The government of Zimbabwe has launched a 30 billion Zimbabwe dollar (US$5 million) fund intended to promote innovation by harnessing the country's untapped technological skills base.

According to Olivia Muchena, minister of science and technology, the government set up the Innovation and Commercialisation Fund to enable innovative people with no money to turn their ideas into reality.

In the past, financial constraints have forced Zimbabwean innovators to abandon projects. For instance, an engine-driven hand plough with potential to improve small farmers' productivity was shelved due to lack of funds.

Announcing the fund at a press conference on 4 January, Muchena said the first grants would be issued this month.

The fund aims to encourage Zimbabweans to develop cheap, simple and locally relevant technologies that can raise living standards in the largely agrarian country, where more than 70 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

Applications for funding will be assessed by the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre to identify commercially viable projects that have the potential to contribute to Zimbabwe's development.

Selected projects will be funded up to the point of commercial production, from which point they will be required to pay the money back into the fund for onward lending to other innovators.

"Innovation by locals has great potential to save the country's depleted foreign exchange reserves through import substitution," says Trynos Ndlovu, a Harare science teacher who invented a cow-dung stove that could reduce the rate of deforestation for firewood.

Other innovations under development in Zimbabwe include a stove that uses sawdust for fuel, a solar-powered drier for fruits and vegetables, and machines that mould roof-tiles, shell maize, and cook sadza, a thick porridge eaten as a staple.

The government of Zimbabwe has declared science and technology as key to development and last year set up a ministry to deal exclusively with the sector.

The science and technology ministry created oversees bodies including the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre, the Zimbabwe Research Council and the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences.