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Innovation in Africa: a critical role for foresight

This issue of Foresight for Development (FFD) is focused on innovation. The aim is to provide resources and information on innovation for users of the FFD. This article provides an overview to complement the information sources.

Africa in the so called new economy

Africa has, in recent years, become quite fashionable. The continent is enjoying a significant wave of optimism. This is due to the economic growth of the last decade which has been more broad-based than previous growth spurts. However, this is not enough. It is not enough given that what Africa needs is socioeconomic transformation. Any nation that fails to position itself properly in this global and knowledge-based marketplace will increasingly be unable to compete and to transform its economy. And, it is in this area that Africa continues to struggle. Africa continues to specialize in the exports of primary commodities. The continent is ranked 8th out of 8 regions in the world in the Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) of the World Bank in 2012. Out of the 145 countries ranked, no African country was in the top 50. Mauritius the best performing African country ranked 61st while the second, South Africa, ranked 67th. This is not surprising given that Africa continues to lag behind the world in most metrics when it comes to education and skills development, research and development, science and technology, ICTs, and Innovation.

Innovation is taking place in Africa

The good news is that Africa’s new generation is cognizant of the need for innovation. In many respects, innovation is taking place on the continent from Nigeria’s multimillion dollar movie industry, Nollywood, the emergence of electronic governance in Cape Verde, to the innovative mobile payment firms in Kenya. Throughout the continent, technology start-ups are emerging. One simply needs to visit i-Hub and m-Lab facilities in Nairobi or the startups emerging in Lagos or the many innovations involving low-technology and sustainable solutions from home construction to household energy needs. Recent research reports support the idea that Africa is leading the world in mobile applications. Over the last decade Africa has witnessed exponential growth in the use of mobile telephones. And, the booming mobile market has given Africa an edge and the continent today has become a creative hub for new products in mobile banking, commerce, education and health.

Despite the positive news, a lot of what is happening on the continent is at the level of inventions. And, in many cases, these are inventions seeking problems rather than a systemic approach to engendering innovations to address the challenges and day-to-day problems facing most Africans. Additionally, for Africa to build a knowledge based and innovation driven economies, there is a need for an exponential growth and also a generalization of what is happening on the continent with respect to innovation.

This, however, will require the development of effective national and, where appropriate, regional innovation systems. The educational system needs to be revamped. Emphasis must be placed on quality and relevance. Technical and vocational education plus the STEM (science, technology, engineering and management) disciplines must be given priority. There is also a need for support for applied research and development and an efficient information infrastructure. Collaboration and linkages must be promoted among the technical and vocational educational institutions, universities, research institutes (national and regional), local firms and multinational firms. Specifically, we must invest in education and the development of appropriate institutional environment.

Foresight as a tool for promoting innovation

The fact is that the development challenges facing African countries are partly a crisis of innovation. What we have in most of African countries today is a rudimentary national system of innovation. The innovation ecosystems are underdeveloped, largely ineffective and will require substantial reforms and investments. The way forward for Africa lies in foresight. Foresight in this respect is not only the adoption of tools and processes for exploring the future. For Africa, foresight must become a way of life and thinking.

Essentially, foresight is the belief that the future is ours to create. It requires that we become proactive, audacious, and strategic. The aim is not simply to undertake technology foresight but to build a new future-oriented culture in policy making and implementation. Such a system can allow African countries to identify weak signals, provide early warning and facilitate learning to allow for effective policy making and implementation in a world of rapid change and complexity.

Foresight by design is a participatory process. It can help to mobilize actors and institutions. It can also facilitate a shared understanding of the issues and as a mobilizing force it can promote collective actions. The participation of stakeholders in the thinking and planning process will allow African countries to refocus innovation efforts on real world problems and opportunities. The challenge though is integrating foresight into governance decision and policy making processes and implementation. Ensuring success is not going to be easy.

Firstly, it has to be seen as a long term effort and a process to change the culture of governance and policy making/implementation in Africa. Secondly, there is a need for political leadership and champion without control. Third, societal ownership of the process is crucial and all stakeholders such as policy makers, researchers, firms, and social groups must be engaged and enlisted in the foresight processes. Fourth, the process must be long term in orientation. That is, it must focus on the future and as such it must be used to explore future possibilities (scenarios) and to build shared visions. Fifth, the process must be strategic in orientation. That is, it must include efforts to scan the horizon with the aim of identifying and analyzing trends, weak signals and ensuring early warning as well as developing effective strategic responses. Sixth, the process cannot be left to chance and efforts must be made to build an institutional apparatus (whether in Planning or other areas) to coordinate and serve as the foresight secretariat for innovation. Lastly, foresight cannot be appended only to innovation it has to become an integral process of governance and policy making in African countries.

Dr Olugbenga Adesida
Guest Editor


Dr Olugbenga Adesida
Partner: Ihaba
Associate Director: African Leadership Institute

Read more about the author and his view on being a futurist.



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