Report by Laura Pereira, Department of Environmental and Geographical Science, UCT.
On Friday 28th November, the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII), a division of the South African Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) hosted a seminar to discuss the recently launched Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024). Although there were some technical difficulties with trying to connect with panellists from three other countries as well as the HSRC offices in Cape Town and Durban, the seminar finally got underway with an introduction from Professor Gillian Marcelle, who is the new head of CeSTII. Her opening remarks mentioned that this was the first of many such seminars that the centre was going to host in order to engage more critically with the policy aspects of STI in South Africa and on the African continent more broadly. Unfortunately, Mr Hambani Masheleni, the senior policy officer in the Human Resources, Science and Technology department of the African Union was unable to connect from Ethiopia in time to give an overall presentation of STISA and so Prof Marcelle ran through his slides to give a brief overview of the document. What struck me most was that whilst the document was meant to include all African citizens, it cannot be downloaded and is currently only available by e-mailing Mahama Ouedraogo at the AU: OuedraogoM@africa-union.org. I have therefore not had the opportunity to read the document (although both the HSRC and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) promised that the document would be available on their websites soon), but in essence it replaces the previous African Science and Technology Plan of Action (CPA) that was adopted by the AU in 2006. The rhetoric of the document speaks to a participatory process involving scientists at home and in the diaspora, policy-makers and the private sector in science, technology and innovation that is the prime driver of economic growth and development on the continent for the next decade. It is focussed on six core goals: Eradication of Hunger and Achieving Food Security, Prevention and Control of Diseases, Communication (Physical and Intellectual Mobility), Protection of our Space, Live Together- Build the Society, and Wealth Creation.
The next speaker was Dr David Ockwell from the STEPS centre at the University of Sussex who joined in the discussion over the phone. He referred to the critical Nature paper that had appeared in response to the imminent adoption of STISA, that emphasised that the top-down administrative aspect of the strategy as well as its lack of firm pledges focussed too little on actual implementation given resource constraints on the continent. Dr Ockwell himself highlighted that there was more emphasis on the science and technology aspects of the policy and less on the innovation side- echoing Prof Marcelle’s earlier comment that there was insufficient focus on entrepreneurship depsite its being mentioned in the strategy. He alluded to a gardening metaphor where policy-makers were the gardeners trying to provide an enabling environment of soil and water so that they could nurture the seeds of innovation into life.
Following Dr Ockwell, we heard another perspective from academia, but this time from an African academic, Associate Professor Clapperton Mavhunga who is now based at MIT. A/Prof Mavhunga provided a more reflexive comment on STISA that engaged with more fundamental aspects of innovation in the African context. He brought up important references to the wealth of innovation that happens in the informal sector in Africa that is not currently recognised. In response to a question, he said that in Africa we have some serious choices to make around whether we want to ‘make the formal more informal or whether we want to formalise the informal.’ Answering these deeper questions around what makes innovation in the African context unique is something that Africa’s academics need to focus on more intently if we are to aid policy-makers in devising useful strategies- he also emphasised the importance of engaging with the African diaspora in this regard. As Prof Marcelle said, rather than learning from the rise of the ‘Asian Tiger’ economies, Africa should probably be engaging more with the scholarship that has developed out of Latin America where innovation has been interpreted to fit the unique situation in that region. Africa needs to discover what innovation means for it before it can fully embrace a STISA-like strategy.
Dr Daan du Toit was next up on the speakers list, providing a perspective on the strategy from government. His main emphasis was that whilst the strategy was not perfect, and that he could also provide an extensive critique of the document, it nevertheless provided a platform for discussing STI policy on the continent. He referred to the need for us all to take ownership of the document- as it was a product adopted by all AU countries- and that we all had a responsibility to ensure that it became a living document that was relevant in regional and national contexts.
The open discussion amongst attendees showed that the presentations by the various speakers had definitely sparked interest in the audience and made them consider the role of STI in development on the continent. A point was raised that the success of STISA required government departments to get out of their siloes and to engage more critically with the concepts underpinning policy in developing countries-such as economic growth and development. It is important to debate what exactly it is that we mean by these concepts and to realise that how me measure them (GDP, R&D expenditure) guides what we see as succesful outcomes of particular policy interventions.
The final speaker, Chux Daniels, a visiting researcher at CeSTII and PhD candidate at SPRU at the University of Sussex, summed up the proceedings well in his closing statement. He noted that one of the most important aspects of the discussion was a recognition that there was a need for African scholars to engage more critically with what we see as STI on the continent. This seminar provided a first step towards wider and more critical engagement with Science, Technology and Innovation that can meet the unique development challenges and leverage the opportunities on the African continent.