6 February 2014

Africa: Top Tips for Building Policy for Innovation

The first day of the inaugural Africa Innovation Summit featured a plenary session on Best Practices in Innovation policymaking. It was a sensible place to start. But some of us have been talking about innovation in Africa for a long time.

In 1998 the Africa Union's Togo Plan of Action from suggested 1 per cent of each member state's GDP should be invested in research and development. That's how long this has been in discussion. Since then only four countries have made the target - Malawi, South Africa, Tunisia and Uganda.

As chair of the session, and with that sobering statistic in mind, I invited the panel to a conversation which I hoped would be genuinely catalytic.

What followed was a discussion which challenged a few key assumptions, put forward some concrete suggestions and presented some new paradigms for looking at innovation. The main points I noted were as follows:

Invest in potential. Ade Abiodun, Chair of the Africa Space Foundation, said that universities should be incubators for innovations and innovators. There were already a number of examples from South Africa, including the demarcation of the Year of Engineering, Science and Technology (YEAST) in 1998.

Encourage the protection of ideas. Both Abiodun and Fernando dos Santos, director general of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation identified the lack of intellectual property (IP) rights as the biggest challenge to building innovation, pointing out that only 2 per cent of global patents in the last 40 years are from less developed countries.

However it was clear that setting up an office is not enough. Kenya set up an active outreach and education campaign for IP awareness and made it easy and cheap to apply.

Innovators need to commercialise their ideas. This means cultivating a healthy private sector and supporting access to capital. William Asiko, CEO of the Investment Climate Facility, unsurprisingly was particularly outspoken about this but his basic logic - that innovation needs to be rewarded - is hard to argue with.

Encourage demand-led innovation. Most firms look to their customers to drive their innovation efforts and the big success stories which have changed our lives have endured because they added value where there was an existing need. This approach to innovation is to be encouraged.

There is no silver bullet but there are a set of conditions. Ultimately, all the panellists recognised that the drive for innovation depends on context because there is no single intervention or framework that could be applied mechanically across all 54 states in Africa. Instead, each country must seek to cultivate the conditions which might sustain an environment for innovation.

Innovative policy is about process, not product. To foster innovation, a long-term investment plan is essential; political parties should be careful of playing political football here. Also policies need to be integrated, otherwise they will undermine each other. For instance, plans for a nanotech industry need to consider not only trade and customs but education as well.

There were also a couple of challenges to assumptions, which with some creative thinking, might turn into opportunities.

How do traditional ideas of commercialisation play out in an era of open access and the age of free apps? Here there is the possibility for Africa to do what it has already shown it is capable of doing: to leapfrog some social innovations and invent new business models.

But are we using the term 'innovation' so loosely and to describe so many processes - technical and social innovations, inventions and policies - that it is difficult to be concrete about what needs to be done? The OECD has already attempted elsewhere to define these different facets of innovation.

But it is also important to understand how individual governments understand them. If we can do that, it will go some way to answering the question of how best to foster innovation. We must remember, of course, that sometimes the answer is to keep out of the way.

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