Innovation Systems for Uncovering Modernity in Africa


There has been an evolution in thinking and in practice about science and technology for development since African countries gained independence. Although the situations of African countries and technologically advanced countries differ considerably, the approaches to further development have been similar.  This similarity of approaches has to be questioned.


In the ‘60s the emphasis was on higher education and scientific research. Universities and public research centres were set up across the region. In the ‘70s, the emphasis shifted to technology, particularly technology transfer, which proved largely a failure given the fact that a technology transfer is a cultural transfer.  In the ‘80s, the emphasis shifted to technological innovation and more generally to innovation systems, drawing on works carried out by the Sussex school. In the ‘90s, the emphasis shifted again to knowledge, with the emphasis on moneyable or commercializable knowledge, i.e. on knowledge as an economic commodity rather than on the search for true knowledge (more so with the expanasion of capitalism and globalization). 


The technological innovation approach provides useful insights into the process of development, but it has not been more successful than other approaches, given the rigidity of traditional systems of thought, beliefs and knowledge on the African continent.


An example of African innovation in the area of transport is provided below.


Africa’s sustainable development and access to modernity depend more and more on its capacity to find innovative solutions to its particular problems (including in the area of food) and to produce and market innovative products and competitive services. In this regard, it is important to put in place policies that will reinforce National Systems of Innovations (NSI), by filling the gaps in the systems and strengthening the interactions between critical elements of the systems.


Entrepreneurial capacities should be reinforced; inter-firms partnerships should be supported; and linkages between the public and the private sectors should be strengthened.  In this area, the UN has studied best management practices and is encouraging and supporting African countries to do the same in their respective nations.  The lack of technological innovation in African countries explains to a large extent the lack of competitiveness and the historical stagnation of their economies.


The new technological / innovation infrastructure calls for special attention to be paid to key areas such as agriculture, industry, energy, and water.  In these areas, the generation of new knowledge, the development of new technologies and the promotion of innovation are crucial for achieving food security, diversifying manufactured products, reducing poverty and protecting the environment and the natural resources base.


In this connection, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is committed to creating sub-regional Centres and Networks of Excellence for higher education and research, with a view to promote science and technology in areas and niches of high priority for sustainable development. The creation of more than a dozen regional technology centres in Africa, initiated or sponsored by UNECA and OAU (at present AU), can be a useful experience. As half of these centres have been unsustainable, and had to be closed down or merged with other centres, long-term sustainability of funding and governance must remain the main concern in creating any new regional or sub-regional institutions in the area of innovation.