30 March 2014

Forum Debates Competitiveness, Innovation and Technology

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Nigerians dancers and drummers entertain during the Conference African finance ministers in Abuja.

Abuja — A High Level Panel debated Innovation and Technology Transfer for Enhanced Productivity and Competitiveness Saturday, as part several core topics at the ECA Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development and AU Conference of Ministers of Economy and Finance.

Mr. Pravin Gordhan, Minister of Finance, South Africa, chaired the panel and said, "as Africans, we have to be very creative in deciding what kind of niche we want to explore." He said that Africa must resist "short term-ism," and focus on beneficial coordination over harmful competition. He acknowledged that "we have a lot of confidence in ourselves," but posed the question, what can Africa do that is innovative and different in order to become competitive in the global marketplace?

Ms. Yvonne Okwara, Presenter, KTN, moderated the session and began by asking Mr Donald Kaberuka, President, African Development Bank (AfDB), if the technologies Africa has been importing were adopted for the local context?

Mr. Kaberuka suggested that industrialization is more than technology. He said the most important thing was a "winning mindset." He was emphatic on that point, and shortly thereafter, Ms. Mariam Mahamat Nour, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Chad, would offer her agreement. She said, "the challenges are weighty," and repeated that success is all about state of mind. She celebrated the idea of Agenda 2063 for its long term ambition and insisted that innovation must be included in the plan. She emphasized the importance of having the discipline to invest in the long term via research and training.

She urged further discipline when adopting technologies, stating, "we cannot adopt just anything that is made available. We must have a sense of discernment."

This discernment was also at the heart the comments made by Professor Justin Lin, Honorary Dean of the National School of Development, Peking University. He said technology transfer held great potential for Africa. While high income countries on the global frontiers of tech must invest heavily in the risky proposition of inventing in order to stay competitive, developing countries can import tech at low risk and cost and maintain growth of "seven, eight, or nine percent."

The question, though, is which technologies to adopt. Professor Lin insisted that countries could maximize growth by focusing on technologies to modernize the sectors where they already have a competitive advantage.

He said, if you import technology in areas where you lack a competitive advantage, even if it is cutting edge, it won't help. Conversely, bringing improved technology to the competitive sectors will stimulate rapid growth. He added that Africa's huge pool of young labor was another advantage, and that countries should focus on importing technologies for labor intensive industries. He mentioned China's 85 million employees in manufacturing, saying those jobs will need a new home when they soon leave China.

The conversation then moved to the politics of innovation. Mr. Michel Sidibe, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), acknowledged that funding decisions are always political decisions. He described how UNAIDS used data to demonstrate that 90% of HIV/AIDS infected Africans were dependent on resources from other continents.

"In the last five years," he said, "working with the African Union, we have increased the budget 150% to fight HIV/AIDS from domestic sources."

He also referenced South Africa, where a long term investment into researching and developing Antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) has resulted in a shift toward domestic production. South Africa now produces ARVs superior to the ones they were previously importing and, as a result, has saved $USD 49 billion.

Ambassador Bashir Yugada, Supervising Minister of National Planning and Minister of State for Works, Nigeria, also emphasized the importance of political will in his own example. He described how Nigeria has registered over 10 million farmers in its database, allowing local governments to deliver fertilizer and seedlings to them, as well as promote agricultural extension.

"Nigerians are now big consumers of our own cassava bread," he said.

Moreover, thanks to these technological innovations, Nigeria will soon be a net exporter of rice. He added, "this can be replicated in other countries."

This led to a discussion of the importance of collaboration and coordination, both within the continent and beyond. Ms. Nour described how the South-South and Triangular Cooperation allowed Chad to host technical experts who would live in the country and train farmers in agricultural innovations while their home country paid their salaries.

In one instance, the technical experts identified defects in the soil and recommended trees that could be planted to improve it. Ms. Nour described how farmers in Chad had been migrating to France where they live in poor conditions, but said, "if the soil is restored then these people will stay."

The Delegate from South Africa provided the highlight of the open discussion, returning to the question of political will. He said long term political organization is a big question mark because "political mandates are party mandates, they are not country mandates." He expressed hope that the 2063 agenda could become a state vision against which parties can measure themselves when they compete.

Mr. Gordhan concluded the discussion with a thorough summary on the current situation of technology and innovation in Africa. Among others, he described the need for collaborative institutions, for shifting to domestic technology development,

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