Innovation and sustainable development: Strengthening linkages in the ICT ecosystem in Africa

Tech hub BongoHive. Photo: Twitter
Tech hub BongoHive. Photo: Twitter

As Africa pursues the transformation agenda, there is urgent need to bridge the knowledge and capacity gap that exists in many countries and sectors. For any society to reach a reasonable level of sustainable development, a carefully planned integration of technologies would be required. To achieve this level of technological advancement, Africa needs to create innovative processes not only in the acquisition or development of new technologies, but also in the diffusion, so that it eventually finds social and economic application throughout the system.

By Foster Ofosu, Capacity Development Specialist at the African Development Bank Group

Whereas developed countries have exploited innovation milieus (system) to develop new technologies and improve on old ones, in the case of Africa the path to technological development has been one of acquisition, utilisation, adoption and (it is hoped) diffusion.  To attain the objective of both social and economic inclusiveness requires recognition of the role of knowledge in the achievement of the ultimate objective of poverty reduction and sustainable development. An understanding of the African socio-cultural environment and its application in the development agenda should have a far-reaching impact on African societies.

ICT developments in Africa over the last decade have opened doors to skills and capacity development, and are today providing the continent with the tools to leapfrog the traditional development trajectory by adopting appropriate technologies. On the back of this, collaborative efforts in the development of innovation at national level have been the subject of discussion among policymakers, entrepreneurs, academics, practitioners and researchers. Such discussions have led to a proliferation of models such as the innovation clusters and national systems of innovation. The focus of these models all work towards developing the innovative capacities of organisations within the national and, in some cases, regional concentrations. Although some of these models have found practical application in, for example, the explosion of innovation centres of excellence in ICT across Africa, the exact linkages between and among the differing actors begets a consensus and commonality of purpose.

Today there are well over 200 technology hubs across Africa aimed at promoting ‘technopreneurship’. One witnesses interesting stories about individuals and small startups making headlines for mobile applications. I commend all the young ‘technoprenurs’ putting Africa on the global innovation and technology map. But that is one side of the story. Successful innovations extend beyond creativity.

The second part of the story is the utilisation and adoption of these technologies even within the societies in which they are developed. There have been successful stories of commercialisation of technologies made in Africa. Notable among them is M-Pesa, which has revolutionised and expanded financial service delivery in Africa through the innovative use of mobile phones. In the healthcare sector, mPedigree, a Ghanaian tech firm, is making significant impact in the mobile anti-counterfeit drug system. We are yet to witness such large scale diffusion of technologies in the education and training sector.

Technological change is at the heart of social and economic transformation more so in the modern knowledge society. Unlike industrial technologies, the knowledge economy requires technologies as input and output of value creation. Developments in ICT should move beyond creativity to successful adoption and diffusion of Africa-made technologies throughout society. How can this be achieved?

For ICT to promote inclusive growth and sustainable development there is a need to move the landscape from stakeholders within nations and between nations working independently to a more collaborative system of innovations across sectors. Africa needs to explore new avenues to enhance technological innovations. Africa should create an environment that will facilitate local, national and international initiatives to develop new technologies for tackling some of the numerous socio-economic challenges. Sustainable development also requires sustainable technologies that are economically viable, socially needed, relevant and accepted.

Whereas the individual technopreneurs and the private sector should remain the main source of technological innovation,  it is important for African societies to develop a system of linkages at the level of policy (government), international organisations, universities, research institutions and civil society to create, apply and diffuse ICT for skills development and capacity building in Africa.

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