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‘In Africa, we are nowhere near the valley of death’


Solomon Nwaka on what hinders the continent from driving technological innovation

Around 2009 Solomon Nwaka began gathering his thoughts on science, technology and innovation in Africa with the ambition of publishing a book.

Twelve years later— last July—the fruits of his labours saw the light of day. Social and Technological Innovation in Africa draws on Nwaka’s experience in medical research and science management spanning at least three continents and as many decades.

In the book, the former head of developing country drug discovery and innovation at the World Health Organization and former executive director of the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics Innovation (ANDI) interrogates Africa’s scientific and technological readiness.

He concludes that while science and innovation has become a bigger priority for the continent, its policy and funding landscapes remain too fragmented to result in the sort of step-change in innovation that Africa needs.

In particular, he writes, most innovation in Africa is of a social, not technological, nature as a result of its reliance on international aid funding and the absence of a strong private sector to drive the demand for technological solutions.

These shortcomings must be acknowledged and addressed by political actors on the continent if African countries are to follow the rapid development trajectories of countries like Singapore, China or India, Nwaka tells Research Professional News in this exclusive interview.

The title of your book suggests a difference between social and technological innovation. How do they differ?

Social innovation is about improving equity, it’s about reaching the poor. In Africa, that’s the main type of innovation we see, and it’s driven by aid and development assistance.

Technological innovation, on the other hand, is driven by markets and commercial interests. In developed countries there are mechanisms to take research and translate it into technological innovation.

But in Africa, there’s no sustainable investment in the value chain of innovation. However, we still think that we are doing technological innovation, when in fact we are doing social innovation.

Can you give an example of what you mean?

You can see it in the current discussions around vaccine nationalism. With Covid-19, there’s a push to boost Africa’s vaccine manufacturing capabilities. This is something we pushed in ANDI for years, but back then we did not get the financial support we needed.

The global interest in building Africa’s capacity to produce its own vaccines might look like technological innovation. But the heavy innovation in the vaccines is still being done in Europe and America, and under all these plans African companies will still only do the finish. That’s social innovation. No one is thinking of a long term value-chain vaccine manufacturing that incorporates R&D and sustained capacity development. It is all about the "fill, finish and packaging."

So what does that mean for science and innovation funding on the continent?

In Africa, research funding is too upstream, too institution-driven. There’s a huge gap in bringing that research to the market, to create companies. In technology development in developed countries you talk about the ‘valley of death’. This is the gap between academic innovations and their commercial application, and developed countries have a number of mechanisms to help innovations cross that valley.

But the thing is, in Africa we are not anywhere near the valley of death. The problem is that we think that we are doing technological innovation, but we are not. It is social innovation and unless we invest hugely we will not get to the valley, let alone cross it.

You write that collaboration patterns in African R&D are symptomatic of the short-term focus on social innovation. How so?

If you look at the patterns of research collaborations in Africa, you will see that there’s still very little intra-African collaboration. There’s been a number of donor-driven initiatives to address this by promoting African consortia. But those initiatives have been too small to make a dent in the issue, and the research funded has been too upstream. No matter how you look at it, the donors have a very strong influence over those programmes.

What’s missing in all this is strong national financing mechanisms for research, through which governments can be deliberate in their disbursements of funds. We need an indigenous financing mechanism to stimulate intra-African collaboration. It’s from that that ideas will come that will lead to small and medium-sized companies.

So what do we need to get there?

We need strong leadership, we need strong governance. We need to show we have a strong policy framework. That’s the way that we will fuel that intra-African collaboration and stimulate the establishment of a private sector that can take on product development.

In your book, you propose a new pan-African institution, the IDEA University. How will that help Africa realise its ambition of doing technological innovation?

At the moment, what we are missing is to train the next generation of research innovators. These are the entrepreneurs that can support the translation of research and put it into the market.

IDEA will fill that gap. I envisage it as a virtual university embedded in existing universities that will help build capacity and integrate venture financing into training. It will help to support SME development, and teach people to understand the whole value chain. Not just students, but also researchers and even policymakers and advisors.

That way, more researchers will understand what it means to manage intellectual property, translate research, how to structure an agreement, things like that. All we are talking about here is not going to happen if we don’t have a critical mass of capacity with the right entrepreneurial mindset.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Social and Technological Innovation in Africa is published by Springer Nature (2021).