Innovation: The new currency for emergence in Africa | By Abdoulaye Mar Dieye

03 Nov 2014

UNDP Africa

Across Africa, many nations are aspiring to become emerging countries. Beyond growth, they want to transform and diversify their economies, rapidly improve the standards of living of their people, and assert internationally their economic and political clout.

As participants in the African Economic Conference, which concluded today, observed, innovation is necessary to achieving that objective. Why? First, because high economic growth rates over the long run can only be sustained with innovation. With diminishing returns, jobs and livelihoods will only continue to grow if more productive sectors are sought. And only innovation – understood as the application of new and existing knowledge to improve processes – can do that systematically.

For instance, when irrigation and fertilizer use improved in Asia in the 1960s, there was initially little gain in agricultural productivity because crops were growing bigger and leafier, but yields didn’t increase. However, with the help of science and technology, Asia eventually experienced the Green Revolution.

Despite impressive efforts in countries like Ethiopia – which established an Agricultural Transformation Agency that is improving farming practices – a similar breakthrough is needed at the continental level. Boosting agricultural productivity will require adopting new practices.

Innovation also matters in the delivery of social services and often requires very low-tech interventions. For instance, in Senegal, between 2005 and 2010, the under-five mortality rate declined by almost 10 percent a year while India took 25 years to achieve similar results. On average, considering countries for which there is data after 2005, the under-five child mortality rate in Africa has been dropping by 4.2 percent a year.

While no single factor is responsible for this, the increased diffusion of insecticide-treated bed nets, which has reduced the incidence of malaria, has been a major contributor. For example, bed nets are responsible for as much as a 50 percent of the reduction in parts of Kenya.

As this example illustrates, innovation is more impactful when it is scaled up. Here, Africa has a huge opportunity to leapfrog others technologically. For example, most countries in Africa already have cellular phone adoption rates vastly surpassing those for fixed lines, without the need for a transition from one to the other. Similar developments are conceivable with energy access, as innovations keep bringing down the price of solar and wind energy.

Finally, innovation is crucial for emergence because it is an outlet for the tremendous creative force of the continent, and especially its youth. Africa is capable of generating its own innovations, not just adopt those of others. In Kenya, for instance, M-pesa – a cell phone based peer-to-peer money transfer system - overcame the constraints of a developing financial system through mobile technology. In 2011 it had more than 14 million users.

Innovation is crucial for Africa’s emergence, but it needs to be nurtured. That is why UNDP’s new strategic plan is devoting resources and putting in place mechanisms to systematically support innovation. It is also encouraging to see that the African Union has adopted a science, technology and innovation strategy for Africa, in line with the Common Africa Position for the post-2015 Development Agenda.

With deliberate national and regional policies, we can jointly help to ensure innovation becomes the currency of Africa’s development.