Young people using computers at iHub, Nairobi, a gathering place for people and companies with an interest in technology and innovation.
Photo: Sven Torfinn/Panos
Innovation means putting research to use
Resilient crops, effective water usage, mobile apps for ultrasound and bank services – there are many innovations that can be of help to the poor. Innovations are about using what we know in new ways.
Around Zanzibar, an island outside the coast of Tanzania, seaweed forms meadows of red and green on the ocean floor. They provide food and shelter for plants and animals, but are also an important export product. Researchers at the Institute for Marine Sciences in Dar es Salaam imported the seaweed already in the 1980s, and the plant has been a pillar in the island’s economy ever since.
Innovations are about bringing what we know to new contexts. Like growing seaweed in a new climate.
Long term perspectives on innovations in Tanzania
In 2006, the Zanzibar Seaweed Cluster Initiative was launched, with the support of Sida and the government of Tanzania. The cluster grew organically, from two villages and 20 members in 2006, to ten villages and 3,000 members in 2010.
The seaweed is used in around 30 products, like food, soap and beauty creams. Zanzibar demonstrated a successful innovation system, made possible by good access to natural resources, export potential, and a close cooperation with the government and university.
Natural clusters consisting of individual entrepreneurs often already exist in a geographic area. By educating facilitators that can help cluster members to organize, competitiveness on the market can be increased; partly by improving their products through research, partly by learning how to run a business. In Tanzania, over 50 clusters have been formed within the agricultural sector alone.
Lately, heightened water temperature has led to the death of algae and lessened recent crop yields. This bears witness to the new challenges posed by climate change. But also to the need for new innovations that can help societies to adapt.
Swedish research support to Tanzania goes to building research capacity at three universities and a research council. It is important for the country to generate high quality research – but it must also come to use.
– The research being done in Tanzania is relevant, but we need another step. How will it benefit society? That is how it can make a difference. This requires a long term perspective on research, says Inger Lundgren at the Swedish embassy of Dar es Salaam.
For that reason, Sweden has given research support to Tanzania since 1977. Many of those that have been educated with Swedish support have later taken a place at the country’s universities, private sector, and government. A study from 2014 that traced 150 Tanzanians that had been provided a doctoral education through Swedish support showed that 93 percent are still at the universities after their education, and that 86 percent feel that they are directly contributing to poverty reduction and development in their countries.
Aid has often been essential in this development. Lately, the government has also opened its eyes to the importance of research.
– Aid has often come before national research initiatives. We have helped to educate researchers, who in their turn have pushed their governments to allocate funds to the universities. Therefore, there are now research ministries, and the universities of Tanzania have gotten more teachers. In the first national development plan of Tanzania, MKUKUTA II, research is mentioned 46 times.
Tanzania has also instituted a research fund whose budget may not fall short of one percent of GDP. Inger Lundberg finds the development promising.
– No country can be without knowledge. In high income countries, we take for granted that research is a motor for development. It should be as self-evident in low income countries. They do not stand a chance on the global market unless they develop strong innovation systems.
Globelics/Africalics: Innovations need to be inclusive
The research network Globelics was founded in 2001 with the purpose of encouraging innovation research. In 2012, they formed the network Africalics to further innovations in African development research with Sweden as the main funder. According to Rebecca Hanlin at Africalics, innovations need to be thought of as a system:
– Innovations are often seen as physical technology. But it is actually dependent on an enabling environment, with education, intellectual property laws and a system of taxation. Without a proper setting, innovations will not reach the end consumer.
That Africa is innovative is beyond doubt, though. She mentions M-Pesa, the service for mobile cash transfers that was developed in Kenya.
– Eastern Africa is a hub for inventiveness. But the universities still lack the capacity to make the most of it. Innovations need support from public institutions, or they risk becoming too commercial. Innovations are more than just economic growth. Their most important purpose is to create sustainable livelihoods.
Research support to innovations
Sweden has provided bilateral research support to Tanzania since 1977. Sida has provided 230 million SEK in research support to Tanzania for the period 2009-2013.
Globelics started in 2001 as a global network with “Learning, Innovation, and Competence Building Systems” (LICS) as its analytic tool. In 2012, they founded the African research network Africalics in Tanzania, with the purpose of encouraging innovations and research capacity in Africa. Swedish support to Globelics amounts to 22.7 million SEK for the period 2011-2015.