Africa’s Innovation Gaps

The African economy has experienced a notable trend break in recent years – the “average” story is now no longer that of abject poverty and escalating conflict, but rather of how best to attract investment, including in new technologies, to buttress growth and sustain and share its benefits with the population. Still, being in this situation is relatively new for Africa.

In past decades the continent had lurched from crisis to crisis without respite and was lauded for its resilience, while its core challenges remained unresolved. The question being asked today is, however, whether this long growth episode will lead to structural transformation.

Knowledge and innovation are key pathways to transforming Africa’s 54 countries and ensuring, as is indicated in the countries’ recent vision statements, the elimination of abject poverty. This is admittedly a tall order, but experience from other regions of the world indicates that it can be done and the moment is propitious.

Already Africa is taking large, silent steps in that direction. It is very close to meeting its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of universal primary education, not a small achievement given the equivocation of the past, while mobile telephone technologies have created platforms for new approaches to social service delivery – notably child and maternal care – that are creating new ways of supplying basic services.

Despite Africa’s forward march, the stock of human capital in many countries falls well short of that required to maintain the growth momentum and engender structural transformation. Sub-Saharan Africa, especially, has not been able to convert its institutions of higher learning into centers of excellence to train development planners, educators, and scientists that will plot its future. Without a critical mass of these high-level skills, the continent will not be able to evolve toward the knowledge-intensive productive niches and value chains that drive today’s global economy.

Let me highlight two areas of great promise in knowledge and innovation that are bound to determine the form and nature of Africa’s future economy and the extent to which African countries will be able to transform on a sustainable basis.

Today, digital technologies are indispensable tools of the modern economy and feature in almost every facet of our lives. However, few could have predicted that mobile technologies would have such a broad appeal in Africa, and that some of the most important technology platforms would be conceived and built there. Many countries are jumping on the mobile technology bandwagon.

Also noteworthy, countries in many parts of Africa have set up commodity exchanges, pioneered in Ethiopia, which enable rural farmers to receive real time data on prices for their produce. This system has enabled households to have a choice of market outlets for the first time in their lives, and the impact is already noticeable in higher take home incomes, and the ploughing back of profits into their operations.

Mobile phone technology is also being used to create a new front against Ebola, as reported in The Economist of October 25, 2014. Until recently, the standard way to model the spread of disease relied on extrapolating trends from census data and surveys.

However, it is now possible to use mobile phone call record data (CDR) to provide immediate and updated results in real time. Researchers have used CDRs to map malaria outbreaks in Kenya and Namibia and to monitor the public’s response to government health warnings during Mexico’s swine-flu epidemic in 2009.

If researchers can track population flows from an area where the index Ebola outbreak occurred, they would be in a position to project where it was most likely to break out next, enabling governments to take appropriate measures.

In spite of the remarkable recent progress, there is still a wide digital divide in Africa, both within countries and in comparison to the rest of the world. Given the benefits – both in terms of income generation and skills accumulation – that accrue to individuals and groups that possess these technologies, issues of unequal access must be given serious policy consideration.

While low levels of education and skills inhibit access, poor or no reading and writing skills in Africa have not inhibited the spread of the cellphone. The simple skills needed to manipulate such a platform could be learnt in a matter of minutes.

Still, real innovation comes from a serious effort to enhance the skills, knowledge and abilities of individuals. It is this that will boost their productivity, ability to innovate, and ultimately how much they could contribute to the transformation of their economies. The development of human resources is a critical component of any innovation and development strategy.

By Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa
Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa (PhD) is acting chief economist and vice president at the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Published on January 05, 2015 [ Vol 15 ,No 766]



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