Friday, July 23, 2010

Cell Phones, Flowers and the Blossoming of African Innovation

Prof. Calestous Juma is an internationally-recognized authority on the role of innovation in economic development. He is Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He also leads the University’s Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Prof Juma was also the first science reporter for the Kenyan newspaper, Daily Nation, which just celebrated it’s 50th anniversary.

Prof. Juma sat down with Zimbabwean journalist, Busani Bafana, on the sidelines FARAweek.

What is the state of innovation in Africa?

Prof. Juma: Africa is innovating. People just aren’t looking hard enough for the signs of innovation. Look at the use of the mobile telephone. Africans have created a whole new industry. It is the first place in the world where mobile phones have been used to transmit money and that has come out of Africa. That is a good example where Africa is innovating and we have seen African universities innovating, for example, the University of Stellenbosch is the first university in the developing world to develop and launch a satellite.

Do you see the same spirit of innovation in the agricultural sector?

Juma: We need to do more. We have gone through a series of famines. We have gone through a long period where we have relied on donors. Oddly enough, this was also a time when donors were not keen to fund agriculture research. Now, Africans and our governments are focusing on agriculture. I expect that we will see more African investment in our farm production. The case of Malawi is a good example of what a country can do very quickly with the right policies and investments.

Is public funding for innovation enough?

Juma: We can do more as the private sector grows. African economies are recovering. Look at the wealth being generated by telecommunications revolution. This wealth is beginning to fund research and build up university systems in places like Egypt and Ghana. This may happen in Kenya as well. The next step is leveraging resources from the public and private sector to contribute to research and innovation.

What are some success stories in African agricultural innovation?

Juma: NERICA is a powerful example. The concept of taking African rice and cross breeding it with Asian rice to create a new rice adapted to African conditions. This is a good example of getting new players and partnerships to foster innovation. In recent years, Kenya has emerged as one the world’s leading exporters of flowers. This is again another example of innovation and creative thinking. Kenyan producers identified a productive area for horticultural production near the airport, then connected with the airlines flying in and out of Nairobi as a way of tap into a very lucrative global flower market.

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