Innovation can simply be seen as the process of combining resources in new or extraordinary ways to generate economic or social value such as slight improvements (incremental) on existing products and services, major leaps in performance (radical innovations) and changes in technology systems. Africa faces many challenges that could benefit from innovations – such as new applications of existing knowledge in agriculture, health, education, environment, information technology, infrastructure development and delivery of other key services. In private sector-led economies, this cannot be achieved without laying a sound industrial base to bring new and improved seeds, vaccines, medicines, fertilizers, communication tools, water systems and clean energy source to market at a competitive price.
Encouraging our scientists, institutions and firms to innovate could help Africa realize the immerse opportunities in the continent. This is not an impossible task – Africa has just witnessed many “African first” innovations in the mobile phone applications that were born out of combination of existing knowledge to solve unique African challenges in the area of money transfers. These innovations have created business opportunities for many firms, created jobs and reduced the costs of money transfers especially in rural Africa.
One area that has been neglected is promotion of non-technological innovations - new and improved ways of organizing internal institutional practices, external relations and market approaches. In some cases, the technology exists, applications are known and the opportunities are many but they cannot be realized because the practices do not permit. For example, few African firms invest in R&D, have links to R&D centres or participate in international industrial alliances. In a way, they are not taking on board emerging partnering arrangement practices that cut the costs and risks of product development, manufacturing/delivery and marketing.
Another area of great potential in Africa is design innovation. If African products are to compete at home and abroad, their appearance and feel has to meet the needs of increasingly sophisticated consumers. A consumer’s decision to buy a product over another may be partly based on its design (e.g. shoes, computers, cars and homes) in addition to utility. Designs also present many technological challenges that push the development of better solutions and/or more technologically advanced materials.
While there is renewed interest in promoting endogenous industrial development in Africa, these efforts are only likely to have a higher chance of success if they combine measures to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in industrial development strategies. In this way, innovation becomes a critical tool in meeting some of Africa’s basic needs such as food security, expanding education, improving health care, diversify exports, among others, through formation of dynamic and innovative firms.
It is for this reason that CODIST-II will address ways in which Africa can harness innovation for industrial development. It will seek generate recommendations that governments could consider in seeding and nurturing innovative industries likely to be globally competitive, create viable businesses, generate millions of jobs Africa badly needs and develop locally branded products. It will draw on African and international experiences and current trends in build new industries around the world, especially green industries.