The African Union Development Agency New Partnership for Africa's Development (AUDA-Nepad) on June 22 launched a centre of excellence (CoE) in science, technology and innovation to upscale and commercialise home-grown innovations on the continent.
The centre was launched in partnership with Stellenbosch University (SU) and the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
The centre, hosted on the SU campus, joins three other operational AUDA-Nepad CoEs on the continent and will focus on identifying, developing and commercialising technological innovations from African research institutions to tackle specific developmental challenges, said AUDA-Nepad CEO Dr Ibrahim Mayaki.
The centre has already identified 44 innovations that are set to be developed and scaled up to roll out. These are widely tested and proven technologies and practices that are ready to be deployed, including screening technologies for medicine development, aquaculture, post-harvest technologies, innovations in water, energy and food security, and online learning and electronic payments systems, added SU vice-chancellor Professor Wim de Villiers.
The electronic payment system is also expected to help to enable the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
"The centre provides the opportunity to translate theoretical research into tangible, positive outcomes. The AUDA-Nepad CoE in SU is doing exciting work and we are committed to develop our research with other AUDA-Nepad CoEs to collectively take them forward.
"This CoE will contribute to Africa driving its own developmental agenda, and converting our potential to products and services to make a positive contribution to the people of the continent," he said.
Mayaki, the CoE team and Science and Innovation Minister Dr Blade Nzimande called on all willing private and public sector partners to join the team of 140 researchers at the CSIR and SU who had developed these innovations to ensure the research agenda is set by stakeholders and demand-driven to support the development of the continent.
CSIR CEO Dr Thulani Dlamini said there was increasing global evidence of the link between a country's investment in research and development and socioeconomic development and prosperity.
"To develop Africa, countries on the continent need to invest in science, technology and innovation (STI) to address the problems Africa is facing. The launch of the [CoE] signifies the beginning of the huge task of unearthing innovations on the continent, but also to ensure that STI contributes to alleviating the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality."
The centre would help to accelerate the development of innovation outputs from Africa's own research and development institutions for socioeconomic transformation in Africa, he said.
The CoE would upscale and commercialise homegrown solutions and innovations on the continent in response to African developmental challenges and opportunities, said Mayaki.
"There is technical consensus that STI will fuel development, accelerate growth, tackle issues such as poverty, disease, food and water security, sanitation and climate change challenges and improve public service delivery and, ultimately, improved human and environmental well-being," he noted.
"This technical consensus has, fortunately, become political consensus. The African Union (AU) Agenda 2063 [developmental agenda] endorsed by African leaders in 2013 underscores the importance of leveraging STI, and the AU has also adopted an STI strategy for Africa, which places STI at the heart of African socioeconomic development and growth.
However, progress toward implementing the framework during the ten-year plan to 2024 has been slow, according to the 2019 African Innovation outlook, published by AUDA-Nepad. Spending by government on research and development (R&D) directly correlates to research output; however, African countries spend less than 1% of their national budgets on R&D, he said.
"One of the key functions of the centre will be to take the benefits of the ecosystem created and spread it within the continent and disseminate the solutions provided by this ecosystem.
"The Covid-19 crisis has shown the vital role STI plays in fighting the pandemic and its impact, and the continent needs to develop its strengths and upscale innovation to fight the pandemic and ensure greater resilience in the post-Covied-19 era," said Mayaki.
Nzimande, in a prepared speech delivered by DSI international cooperation and resources deputy director-general Daan du Toit, challenged the CoE to ensure that it became a vehicle to enable deeper pan-African operation and integration to leverage opportunities, such as those afforded by the AfCFTA, and became a vehicle for pan-African cooperation.
"The only hope for success in achieving the decade plan [of the AU Agenda 2063] lies in true partnerships. The publicly-funded CSIR and SU are evidence of the support provided by the DSI, and the Minister hopes to see much more and broader collaboration with industry and civil society as co-creators of effective solutions and embracing the principles of open innovation and open science.
"The CoE and partners must ensure it is an inclusive vehicle, including of grassroots and rural community innovations, as well as addressing gender imbalances and advancing women in science. The CoE must ensure that it partners and goes across borders to be pan-African," Du Toit said on behalf of Nzimande.
Societal challenges must be identified, prioritised and responded to, including poverty, inequality and health and the need to modernise African economies. The centre must identify new opportunities for growth and, crucially, work to address the ongoing challenge posed by climate change and ensure that African countries were more responsible stewards of natural resources, as well as responded to opportunities and challenges posed by the ongoing demographic changes, such as urbanisation.
Public-private partnerships were important in catalysing the scaling up and commercialisation of innovations in line with African development priorities, commented CSIR strategic partners manager Dr Ndumiso Cingo.
"The continent spends less than 1% of gross domestic product on research and development, and our intention and hope is that we can use the centre and our partnerships with regional institutions and organisations to drive more research and development spending."
Meanwhile, global body the World Economic Forum (WEF) advanced manufacturing industries head Felipe Kuzmanic said efforts must be accelerated to transform and scale up innovations. The WEF is focusing on, besides others, new business and operating models, Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, workforce skills and multinational stakeholder collaboration.
"Within this framework, the [WEF] is bringing together many voices and driving better outcomes. The key question is how we can increase the distribution of advanced and pioneer technologies, new business models and new partnerships to drive the ability of business to drive impact and support growth and society."
Covid-19 was a reminder of the role the manufacturing and productive sector and its ecosystem, such as supply chains, played in the global economy, and the WEF was supporting manufacturing and products to be more resilient, sustainable and inclusive, and enabling the ecosystem to become a driving force for the recovery of economies and social recovery. The efficiency of the ecosystem was imperative, as it was not only a factor in growth, but also long-term competitiveness.
"In this context, we are bringing together many key voices and leaders to address the challenges and opportunities in the manufacturing sector to bring about transformation," he said.