Closing technology, science gap essential

William Gumede Correspondent
Since the end of colonialism, African countries have suffered from a technology gap compared to their former colonial powers, which most African countries have been unable to overcome.

The UN Council for Trade and Development (Unctad) showed in its technology and innovation report that African countries account for only 0,3percent of global exports of high technology.

Unctad further reported that Africa shows the least technological growth compared to other regions.

African countries face the challenge of using technology to leapfrog industrialisation, development and growth.

This means African countries must pursue technology-led industrialisation, development and growth.

In fact, for African countries to break out of their current development model of exporting unprocessed raw materials, which provides little income, little growth, little entrepreneurial development and few jobs, they need to prioritise technological, scientific and engineering development.

Technology-led industrialisation needs highly skilled workforces — artisans, technicians, scientists and engineers. However, colonial powers deliberately did little to educate, specifically when it came to technology, the indigenous communities of their colonies, to ensure they did not compete with colonial settlers.

This meant that at the end of colonialism, most African countries had mostly illiterate, low and unskilled workforces, with few technical, scientific and engineering skills. Former colonial powers and industrial countries have retained an industrial advantage over African countries in the post-independence era, by using new technology and scientific applications and automation of production systems in companies.

Furthermore, those countries have control over technological innovations, patents and trademarks — locking African countries out of using these to leapfrog their industrialisation.

This means companies from those countries have retained their competitiveness — because of their superior technology, scientific advances and automation in production process — in African countries beyond the end of colonialism. This has further widened in the non-equivalence in trade between those countries and Africa, on the other hand. Unctad says rightly that African countries can never be competitive by continuing with the model of exporting raw materials, with its unskilled and cheap labour, and large companies mostly owned by foreigners; and local companies mostly based in the informal sectors,and archaically run state-owned companies.

Unctad says: “In almost all industrial activities, competitiveness involves technological change, new organisational methods, flexible response, greater networking and closely integrated production systems across firms and regions. The new competition requires better technological capability in every country, regardless of resource base and location.”

The East Asian “tiger” economies such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, overcame a similar colonial-era technology gap with industrial countries, after the independence from colonialism, by copying, adapting and then improving on or creating something new out of industrial country technologies.

These countries have over time improved the competitiveness of their local industries through the use of technology and now export their manufactured products to the markets of former colonial powers and industrial countries.

These countries have combined, integrated and introduced science, technology and innovation, in tandem with national industrial policies. Furthermore, these countries have rapidly improved the quality of their education systems in the post-colonial period, focusing specifically on science, engineering and technicians, in such a way that most of them over time produced better quality graduates in these subjects than former colonial powers and industrial countries.

Because of these, the East Asian “tiger” economies countries could rapidly change the technical, scientific and technology skills level of their workforces, they could copy, adapt and improve on or create production processes, from industrial country technologies.

Many East Asian “tiger” economy governments have compelled former colonial powers and industrial country companies to allow, in return for being allowed to invest in East Asian “tiger” economies, for East Asian “tiger” economies’ companies to use the former colonial powers and industrial countries’ technological innovations, patents and trademarks.

Another group of developing countries, such as China, Malaysia and Mexico, and more recently Thailand and the Philippines, have focused their countries’ technology and industrialisation strategies on becoming the homes for former colonial power and industrial country companies to assemble sophisticated technological products, as part of their global production chains.

China for example, through this strategy, have then copied foreign technology this way — and used it to produce their own export products over time.

In Africa, since the end of colonialism, very few countries have had science, technology and innovation strategies, or industrial policies, let alone integrated them.

As a start, African governments and leaders need to foster the political will to pursue a technology-based industrialisation, development and growth paths.

In many African countries, civil society groups and researchers astonishingly reject scientific or technology-based approaches saying they are Western-based, and therefore should not be leveraged by African countries. Many who argue this way want to focus priorities on supposedly African traditional systems, knowledge and practices. Of course, useful African traditional knowledge systems and practices must be nurtured.

First, science and technology are universal and cannot be claimed as Western-owned only, meaning that all cultures and regions, including Africa, have contributed one way or the other to it. The issue should be whether Africa’s contributions are adequately acknowledged in former colonial powers and industrial countries.

As the case of China, South Korea and Japan show, which are non-Western countries with strong cultures, like African countries, that the reality is that unless they beat the former colonial powers and industrial countries in technology, science and business, they will remain unequal in global power. African countries must put together evidence-based technology policies, garner the political will to implement these policies, build supporting institutions, strengthen research agencies and on merit find the most talented people to drive institutions and agencies.

Furthermore, it will be pointless if African technology supporting institutions are run by incompetent cronies, appointed only on the basis of being linked to the governing party, leader or dominant ethnic group. Also, if African countries put together technology policies, but if these are captured by corrupt leaders and businesses, aligned to the governing party, its leader and dominant ethnic groups, it will be a non-starter.

Given the lack of resources in African countries, there will have to be partnerships between government, the private sector, whether local or foreign and civil society, to make technology policies work. Technology policies will have to be integrated, co-ordinated with and synergised with all other policies, particularly industrial policy.

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