Harnessing the Potential of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in Africa Development
13 August 2020
Digital technology and innovation can help us deal with complex global challenges and achieve sustainable prosperity for humanity and our planet. But they can also drive us apart and fuel inequality.
Digital technology and innovation at large is transforming our world. Faster internet, satellite data and imagery, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have made our lives and economies unrecognizable from just a generation ago. These technologies can help us deal with complex global challenges and achieve sustainable prosperity for humanity and our planet. But they can also drive us apart and fuel inequality. As governments adapt to this rapidly-changing technological environment, so must UNDP if it is to remain a trusted and effective partner.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union (AU) 2063 Agenda are ambitious plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. The achievement of these goals would be enhanced by the full implementation of the AU’s 10-year Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024) that considers science, technology and innovation as multi-function tools and enablers for achieving continental development goals. Regrettably, it is clear that the actions we are taking in terms of science, technology and innovation are not yet making an impact across critical sectors such as agriculture, energy, environment, health, infrastructure development, mining, security and water among others that contribute to Africa’s transformation, , nor at the scale and pace needed to achieve the 17 Goals. We all must join forces, with multi-stakeholder platforms as the one that TICAD represents for Africa, and leverage new opportunities in science, technology and innovation to create the continent we are all striving for.
The potential of STI in Africa rests on building and/or upgrading research infrastructures; enhancing professional and technical competencies; promoting entrepreneurship and innovation; and providing an enabling environment for STI development across Africa. There are emerging opportunities to accelerate progress in this regard, particularly in terms of what is sometimes referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – demonstrating the magnitude of the change –, digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchains and machine learning are transforming societies, economies, public and private sector organizations, and individuals across the globe.
These emerging technologies have the potential to advance sustainable development and lead to greater development impact – while also presenting a risk to drive us apart and fuel inequality. As such, mobilizing public, private and donor resources to finance Research and Development and creating an enabling environment for multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral collaboration in open Innovation and Entrepreneurship remains the key to accelerating Africa’s transition to an innovation-led, Knowledge-based Economy.
Fostering innovation for accelerated socio-economic gain is now a priority for UNDP in Africa and our organization has just launched its first Digital Strategy, which is a call to action and innovation both for UN and our network of partners.
Financing the SDGs – both through public and private resources – is at the core of UNDP’s efforts. As a systemic challenge, it demands the re-orientation of how public and private actors interact with each other to achieve the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental.
The required collective efforts by governments, the private sector, philanthropy and civil society as well as the necessary re-shaping of markets to become more inclusive, equitable and sustainable must make use of technological advances and innovative financing approaches, in particular financing schemes that combine the resources and technical expertise of both the public and private sector.
Turning to intra-African trade, which has recently received a boost through the ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and can promote inclusion and equality, digitization can lower barriers to entry and help connect Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) with global markets and value chains, providing the necessary services to facilitate their exports, such as simplified payments and logistics.
With the right policies in place, e-commerce in Africa could reach 75 billion USD by 2025 and could be of particular benefit to MSMEs, which constitute more than 80 per cent of African enterprises. Overwhelming successes are already emerging, such as Jumia, the “African Amazon”, which has become the continent’s first unicorn being valued at over 1 billion USD. However, for trade to take full advantage of technology and innovation, African countries must first close the digital divide and increase access to technologies in order to ensure the broader adoption of digital technologies.
African governments need to pursue industrialization by combining physical and digital infrastructure improvements. Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution requires urgent investments in human capital development that is tailored to the changing needs of businesses. With the rise in new technologies and automation globally, the continent is primed to exploit such opportunities because of a young and more educated population. YouthConnekt Africa, a multi-dimensional youth empowerment programme implemented in approx. ten African countries, and the complementary YAS! Youth for Africa and SDGs initiative that focuses on youth entrepreneurship on the continental level, are clear examples of this approach that UNDP supports.
The possibilities that are emerging to advance sustainable development in Africa by strategically applying science, technology and innovation – in SDG financing and trade, and beyond. UNDP is committed to work together to ensure this digital revolution leads to revolutionary solutions to the complex problems facing our word, including Africa.