Africa Sharpens R&D Profile: Innovations in Science and Technology Have Been the Catalyst Behind Global Growth. in Africa, the Seeds of a Technology Revolution Are Being Sown as Many African Economies Are Pursuing Research and Development as a Key Driver of Socio-Economic Prosperity. Valerie Noury Reports

Article excerpt

Africa is increasingly emerging as a dynamic and innovative continent, boasting a large source of young talent who are bringing fresh ideas to the world of cutting-edge technology. There is also a growing recognition across Africa that technology and innovation is a vital cornerstone for continued socio-economic development. In May, the first report on the outlook for innovation in Africa was unveiled at the three-day African Science, Technology & Innovation Indicators (ASTII) workshop in Addis Ababa.

"This initiative is the first major Africanled, politically authorised effort to generate a comprehensive and comparative survey of science and technology investment (STI) on the continent. It establishes a foundation for Africa to continue experimenting and measures the effects of STI on its economic and social transformation," states the report.

The African Innovation Outlook 2010 was prepared with data from the ASTII initiative, a project designed by African science ministers and assisted with funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The venture which, for the first time, provides data created and researched in Africa, represents a strategic shift for the continent, who had previously mostly relied on data from outside.

The first comprehensive survey of its kind, it calls on African countries to invest more into the sector, and shows that already in 2007, South Africa, Uganda and Malawi invested more than 1% of their GDP towards science and technology. This is above the 2010 target adopted by heads of states in a 2007 African Union summit.

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The report, which collects STI data from 13 countries, shows that South Africa still takes towers over others, spending nearly 30 times more than Malawi and over eight times more than Nigeria on science and technology.

The remaining countries in the survey spent an average 0.20% and 0.48% of their GDP on research and development (R&D). The report also shows that medical research has dominated African research, overtaking agricultural research, which dominated the field during the 1990s.

An astronomic project

South Africa is a very strong contender to become the home to the world's largest radio telescope - a colossal deep space telescope project named SKA, or Square Kilometre Array, which is expected to receive a total investment of [euro] 1.5 billion.

The SKA project will be spread over 5,500 square kilometres with massive three-storey structures connected to a supercomputer, described by scientists as one of the most powerful computing machines in human history.

Everything about the SKA project is monumental, with scientists saying that in the first week of operation, scheduled for 2024, the telescope will exponentially increase man's knowledge about the universe. For example, little is known about the dark ages, the period between the Big Bang, which happened 13.7bn years ago, and the creation of the first stars.

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, an ambassador to the project, says "The SKA can take us there," with the invaluable information it is expected to provide. On the other hand, the SKA will also make significant energy demands, but it will also generate innovations and major developments in renewable energy that will assist in producing power.

The final selection of the site, known to be an extremely scrupulous procedure, is now between South Africa and Australia and, if South Africa fends off competition from Australia, the aerospace industry will receive, in the words of South Africa's Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, "the largest science-based capital injection Africa has ever seen".

Demand-driven innovation

An environment of constraint has been a useful motor behind many African-led innovations. Thomas Otter, the vice-president of the analyst firm Gartner, based in Germany, has shown great interest in technology innovation coming out of Africa aimed at cutting costs. …