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South Africa drops among Africa’s top R&D spenders

Fresh Unesco data places country behind Egypt, Rwanda and Tunisia

South Africa has dropped to fourth place on the African continent in terms of its spending on R&D as a proportion of GDP.

The news comes less than a year after South Africa’s National Advisory Council on Innovation warned the country was losing its position as the continent’s leader in research. 

The country spent 0.61 per cent of its GDP on R&D in 2019 according to data added this month to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization database.

This is less than Egypt (0.84 per cent in 2019), Rwanda (0.76 per cent in 2019) and Tunisia (0.75 per cent in 2019). South Africa is the only country of the four whose R&D spend dropped as a proportion of GDP.

Egypt’s spend increased to 0.96 per cent in 2020. However, it is the only country of the four to have reported for that year so far.

Best of the rest

Three other African countries added data for 2019, 2020, or both: Mali, Mauritius and Burkina Faso.

Mauritius increased its R&D spend of GDP from 0.35 per cent in 2018 to 0.42 per cent in 2020. Mali’s spend dropped from 0.29 percent of GDP in 2017 to 0.16 per cent in 2019. Burkina Faso reported spending 0.25 per cent of its GDP on R&D in 2020.

No African countries reach the continent’s target, adopted by heads of state in 2007, of spending 1 per cent of GDP on R&D.

Caution advised

In a 1 June news release, Unesco advises against reading too much into increases in proportional R&D spend for 2019 and 2020.

“These increases are not necessarily due to increased investment in R&D during this period but because of substantial decline in GDP, where growth in R&D investments have outpaced the growth in national economies,” it says.

It adds: “This suggests for a cautious interpretation of change in R&D expenditure as a share of GDP within the context of the global pandemic.”

Researchers per million

Some countries have also added data on how many researchers they have per million inhabitants.

As with R&D spend as a proportion of GDP, this is lower in Africa than in most other world regions. Nevertheless, a handful of countries report growth in this number.

Egypt had 838 full-time researchers per million inhabitants in 2020, up from 687 in 2018. Mali had 58 researchers per million, up from 33 in 2017.

Mauritius reported 564 researchers per million in 2020, an increase from 474 in 2018. Rwanda had 59 researchers per million in 2019, more than triple the 14 full-time equivalent researchers per million it reported in 2016.

However, Togo, Tunisia and South Africa reported declining numbers in researchers per million inhabitants. South Africa’s dropped from 504 in 2018 to 484 in 2019, Tunisia from 1,812 in 2018 to 1,660 in 2020 and Togo from 48 in 2018 to 46 in 2020.