Universities and innovation in Africa: The gap between policy and reality

September 16, 2016   |   Policy Debate

By Christian Noumi & Creso Sá

In the “knowledge economy”, countries around the world have been promoting the virtues of innovation and the role that universities can play in supporting it. No other region appears to have embraced the potential of innovation with such fervour as Africa. However, there is a substantial disconnect between innovation policy aspirations and the reality of universities in many African countries. In this context, there is a need to re-frame the role of universities in Africa to reflect more realistically existing institutional capabilities and national needs.

The diffusion of innovation policy in Africa

For almost a decade, innovation for economic development and poverty reduction has been on the agenda at a number of African gatherings. The latest of these meetings are slated to happen next week: In Nairobi (Kenya), the 6th iteration of the annual Innovation Africa will gather education, innovation and research ministers from more than 40 African countries. Not to be outdone, South Africa is organizing its own Innovation Summit around the same time, bringing together non-profit, business, and academic leaders to discuss different ways to tap into the innovation potential for economic and social prosperity.

One of the early policy manifestations of this continent-wide interest in innovation for development was the adoption of the African Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action in 2005. This was followed by the creation in 2009 of the African Observatory on Science, Technology and Innovation (AOSTI) by the African Union, in order to encourage and support science and technology in its member countries. The African Union believed that:

improving university-industry interactions is one of the main ways of ensuring that African countries make the transition from mere conduct of scientific research to technological innovation

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-10-01-26-pmThis position was reinforced by the African Strategy on Science, Technology and Innovation launched at the 2014 Africa Innovation Summit in Cape Verde.

Prominent international organizations and development agencies have also supported similar initiatives, encouraging aid-receiving countries to transform their university systems to stimulate scientific and technological innovation. For instance, the United Nations’ Task Team on the Post Millennium Development Goals-2015 and the World Bank have highlighted the role of innovation in driving growth in developing countries. UNESCO has helped many African countries establish national science, technology and innovation policies; and for the most part, these policies expect higher education institutions to play a prominent role by, among other things, establishing stronger links with industry.

In addition, several Western governmental development agencies are putting a growing emphasis on an innovation agenda in the receiving countries. Through separate initiatives, the British Council, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the French Research Institute for Development, and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) have all assisted a few African universities in their linkages with industry or to develop innovative solutions to global development challenges.

Disconnect between policy and existing resources

The above initiatives show that there has been significant interest and debate on making innovation one of the pillars of the development agenda in Africa. Unfortunately, while science, technology and innovation policies and discourse in Africa are ubiquitous, for the most part they remain aspirational, rarely accounting for the limited capacity of universities in the continent. Indeed, as a whole the continent invests less than 1% of its GDP in higher education, with an equally low investment in R&D. Among all regions of the world, Sub-Saharan Africa ranks last in R&D expenditures, allocating only 0.58% of its GDP.

Most African economies are extraction and natural resources based, and dominated by small and medium sized businesses. Very few engage in R&D, let alone in partnership with local universities. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of the large companies in Sub-Saharan Africa are branch offices of multinationals. Decisions on where to invest in R&D and establish university linkages are made at the headquarters. Therefore, partnerships are rarely made with local universities, and innovative products and services are more commonly imported.

Innovation agendas tend to be high-tech focused, requiring considerable financial and human resources, and at odds with existing realities of universities. Very few institutions have significant S&T research expertise. This is in part due to the still present brain drain of university graduates, and the limited supply of PhD graduates exacerbate the situation. Even in South Africa—the most advanced higher education system in the continent— PhD degrees represent less than 2% of the total number of degrees awarded. As one of the leading African economies, the country has acknowledged that it needs more PhD graduates.

In addition, there is a shortage of managerial expertise and support staff. Most universities do not have the support structures and personnel to engage productively with industry (e.g. research administrators, technology transfer or industry liaison officers). For example, an informant in Tunisia lamented that in many instances, industry representatives were open for partnerships, but because his laboratory lacked the required expertise in contract negotiations, potential agreements did not come to fruition.

Limitations in professional expertise and academic leadership is also being aggravated by the poor state of infrastructure in most African universities. Chronic underfunding affects facilities necessary for research and for appropriately training students.

Reframing the role of African universities

Considering the realities discussed above, universities should not blindly embrace the innovation bandwagon, especially the high-tech kind. Emphasis on high-tech in the policy and discourse about innovation in Africa as it relates to universities is misguided and unrealistic.

Current innovation policies, as they are implemented in advanced economies, require research capacity and resources that African universities do not and cannot realistically acquire in the short and medium term. The emphasis on high-tech innovation is quite unfortunate, given the potential that innovation in a broader sense provides.

Context-sensitive and socially relevant contributions are a more suitable starting point for a debate on university roles in development. There is early indication that universities in the continent have been successful in engaging in various forms of low-investment, socially relevant innovation. This social innovation in its multiple forms, appears to be a viable and more realistic alternative, requiring fewer resources, and providing context-specific solutions to Africa’s challenges.

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