Kampala — The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is turning to science, technology and innovation to foster trade and investment in the region.
The 16th Summit of the COMESA Authority of Heads of State and Government, held in Uganda's capital Kampala last month (23-24 November), endorsed the establishment of an innovation council, an annual award and an innovation fund.
The three entities will support the mobilisation and coordination of scientists and engineers, and encourage innovation by individuals and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
"The overall [envisioned] impact is the production of innovative goods and services for regional and global markets that can make the region a leading destination for technology investment," says Fred Kongongo, coordinator of COMESA's Science, Technology and Innovation Programme.
This model will enable collaboration between the ministries responsible for trade, science and technology in the COMESA member states. There will also be a research component relevant to regional development, Kongongo says.
"It is inspiring to see COMESA providing leadership to apply science and technology to economic development through trade," says Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard Kennedy School, United States.
Juma says the view that trade can push science and technology is a major departure from conventional emphasis that Africa needs to first invest in research before it can advance technologically and economically.
In the past, the approach has been that African governments should devote at least one per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to research and development (R, but, to date, only South Africa has achieved this goal. In this new model it will be trade and science combined spurring economic growth.
COMESA member states plan to set up a national innovation fund next year, with an initial fund of at least US$1 million for each country to finance local activities and to act as seed money for the mobilisation of further funding.
The COMESA secretariat will create a regional fund to disseminate grants matching each national level fund. The private sector has been invited to contribute to this fund to aid the commercialisation of research results.
"We hope that this will lead to the mobilisation of resources to create national entrepreneurial systems that can be networked at a regional level through trade," says Kongongo.
The COMESA Innovation Council, made up of eminent figures from academia, business and government, will act as an advisory body for the member states to help them harness technology to foster the creation of SMEs.
The council will also guide the regional innovation agenda, provide advice to member states on innovations for economic development, and choose the winners of the annual COMESA Innovation Award.
The award, to be further discussed in February 2013, will cover all sectors and categories but it will first focus on women and youth.
"The long-term solution will require the intensive integration of global science, technology and innovation networks," Kongongo tells SciDev.Net. "This will also enable the least developed COMESA member states to develop novel ways of moving up selected value chains, developing new production areas and exporting more value-added goods and services."
Juma says: "Not only is Africa led by COMESA's charting of a new innovation path, but [COMESA] is also doing it by relying on its own expertise, which will operate through a novel advisory council on innovation."