Evidence of research and innovation generating jobs, sustaining wealth, and transforming societies for the better exists in so much abundance, globally, that Africa has no excuse for failing to position herself for long-term prosperity and societal well-being. The most obvious route to that end is by nurturing an environment that allows research and innovation to flourish, particularly in higher education institutions.
This was the central message that Professor Nathaniel Boso (left), Dean of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) Business School, shared at the 7th Research and Innovation Dialogue that was completed last Friday from the Coastlands Umhlanga Hotel Convention Centre in KwaZulu-Natal. Professor Boso is also the Oliver R Tambo Africa Professional Research Chair of Entrepreneurship and Employability at KNUST.
The biennial Research and Innovation Dialogue is a project of the Research and Innovation Strategy Group of Universities South Africa (USAf), chaired by Professor Thoko Mayekiso, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga. The theme of the 2023 Dialogue was Research and Innovation for Societal and Economic Impact.
The guest speaker premised his talk on the common knowledge that “research and innovation activities are intertwined, with scientific research activities serving as a foundation for innovation outputs to create social and economic values.” He said it is out of research-generated knowledge that new products, services and technologies that go on to improve people’s lives are derived.
Addressing a 90-strong group of universities’ executive leaders – mostly at deputy vice-chancellor level, senior academics, representatives of research councils (including chief executive officers) and higher education policymakers, Boso went on to demonstrate the link between nations’ investment in research and development (R&D) as a percentage of their gross domestic product, and their economic competitiveness.
He attributed the United States’ dominance over high-tech companies such as Microsoft, Apple, IBM, DELL, etc., to that country’s $717billion R&D spending in 2020 – which was set to grow even further to $792billion by 2022. Other examples of similarly prosperous nations were South Korea, evidenced through global giants like Samsung, Hyundai, LG Electronics, etc, and Israel that transformed itself from a rocky desert country to producing world-class food output though innovative agri-based technologies.
Africa’s wanting R&I landscape
Professor Boso lamented Africa’s poor economic performance, notwithstanding that the continent represents approximately 20% of the world’s land mass, boasts 60% of the globe’s arable land, owns vast forest reserves, and is home to 30% of the world’s reserve of minerals and has the youngest population of any continent. “Despite these riches, Africa produces only 3% of global GDP, accounts for less than 3% of international trade (mainly primary commodities and natural resources), and shoulders 25% of the global disease and poverty burdens,” he said, adding that when it came to research and innovation, Africa presented an even bleaker picture.
“Africa has barely 1% of the world’s global research and innovation outputs, on the average contributes less than 1% of its GDP to research and innovation activities, accounts for only 1.3% of total global research spending and produces 0.1% of all patents.”
He said even though South Africa, through its National Research Foundation, was the largest spender on research and innovation as a share of GDP in Africa, the expenditure was still very low as a percentage of South Africa’s GDP (at only 0.85%). There was no evidence that that research and innovation spending would increase in the foreseeable future, given that investment increment had been averaging around 1%.
Stemming from that bleak picture, Boso said Africa was glaringly absent from the world’s top 20 innovative countries (above) as determined by their research and development expenditure, the number of domestic patent applications and the number of public high-tech companies.
He said that in the Global Innovation Index 2021 report (by the World Intellectual Property Organisation – WIPO), Africa only featured in the top 100 innovative countries of the world and, even then, the continent was only represented by five countries, namely Mauritius (at No.52), South Africa (at No 61), Kenya (at No. 85), Cape Verde (at No. 89) and Tanzania (at (90).
Universities’ research relies predominantly on public funding
The biggest setback for Africa lay in its universities’ reliance on public sector funding for research and innovation, Boso said. While universities in more innovative economies relied on a combination of funding sources such as crowd funding, industrial grants, licensing of IPs and others, alongside government grants, he argued that unstable political environments, poor governance, and corruption were often mentioned among major deterrents to private sector funding for research and innovation on the continent. It was no surprise, therefore, that with the limited resources and infrastructure available for research and innovation, Africa could not get the most of what it could from research activity.
For solutions, Professor Boso suggested that African governments prioritise pro-research, pro-innovation, pro-science, pro-technology, and pro-entrepreneurship policies to unleash private-and-public sector innovation, adaptation, and adoption. He also advocated for creating ecosystems that would facilitate investment in research and innovation in ways that would speed up discovery while also catapulting innovations into markets.
Mr Abe Mathopa (left), Manager: Research Capacity Development in the Department of Research and Innovation at the University of Pretoria, would argue during subsequent discussions that in the context of societally impactful research, debates have advanced to advocate for a quadruple helix framework, where civil society becomes the fourth player in the partnership framework.
Professor Boso drew attention to the importance of closing Africa’s deficiency gap in science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship, stating that the most competent researchers are drawn to environments where their efforts are complemented by modern reliable equipment, adequate funding, and other talented people. Having earlier blamed Africa’s poor innovation performance by high brain-drain to countries in the Global North, Professor Boso encouraged creating world-class education and research infrastructure to retain talent on the continent. He was adamant that with a strong post-graduate research talent developed and retained in Africa, buoyed by notable research investment, innovation and entrepreneurship, the continent would most assuredly see a surge in productivity, manufacturing, and new business start-ups. All of these were important prerequisites for Africa’s realization of her potential to develop, grow wealth and attain wellbeing for her people.
Finally, Boso contended that creating and placing scientific culture at the centre of economic transformation and policymaking is a long-term investment that must not be left in the hands of only political actors. “Success will require effective tripartite (public-private-academia) collaborations and partnerships that should be sustained over time.” He added that if this were to be achieved in this era of the African Continental Free Trade Area, research and innovation benefits would be harnessed for greater economic, social, and environmental sustainability in Africa.
In the opening session of the Dialogue, Professor Thoko Mayekiso (right), as Chair of the Research and Innovation Strategy Group and the event host, called this Dialogue a platform for critical reflection. “We are gathered here as catalysts for change, fostering positive shifts in the agenda of our institutions, society and ourselves.” She said this gathering’s deliberations were intended to yield a plan of action for the higher education sector, and, for that reason, encouraged the delegates to engage with vigor, curiosity, and unyielding resolve to improve South Africa’s research agenda.
Professor Mayekiso expressed great satisfaction that this meeting had attracted senior delegates such as DVCs, heads of universities’ departments, directors in policymaking and CEOs of science councils including the Council on Higher Education – people who mattered, considering that the Dialogue was meant to come up with concrete actions that would shape “our research enterprise and nation. This engagement should yield partnerships that will ensure that our societal challenges will be resolved. This requires a collective will to develop together, encouraged by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Let’s harness the power of this dialogue to ignite change at institutional, national, and global level.”
The Dialogue’s agenda covered four thematic areas, namely:
- Research and Innovation Impact — Moving towards a conceptual framework for research and innovation for universities.
- Student Mobility— Rethinking student mobility nationally and internationally.
- Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship for Societal Impact — Creating an enabling ecosystem for social innovation and entrepreneurship at universities.
- Transformative Internationalisation — Towards a transformative and inclusive internationalisation strategy for USAf.
Professor Mayekiso said she was also happy that the meeting was taking place in person, adding that a dialogue, by nature, achieves the most when it happens face to face.
‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communications.