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Service industries in the crosshairs as SA launches innovation survey

[CAPE TOWN] The architects of South Africa’s sixth innovation survey hope its new format will result in better response rates from firms and improved insights into innovation in non-manufacturing sectors.

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the Department of Science and Technology launched the fieldwork for the sixth South African Business Innovation Survey on 5 September in Cape Town..

The survey has identified a nationally representative sample of 5,000 South African companies to take part, covering the years 2014-16. Companies will be asked detailed questions about their innovation activity in those years, as well as their views on barriers to innovation.

The results, due to be published towards the end of 2018, will help the government draw up policies that respond to the rapidly changing realities facing businesses, said Godfrey Mashamba, chief director of science and technology investment at the DST.

“We live in an ever-changing environment that requires businesses to stay ahead of the game,” Mashamba said.

Glenda Kruss, deputy executive director of the HSRC’s Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators, said the survey would pay extra attention to service sectors like tourism, retail and banking.

These sectors are growing in South Africa when others are shrinking, she said: “In South Africa, the percentage of GDP coming from services has grown significantly.”

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South Africa’s innovation surveys have a chequered history. The University of Cape Town performed the first, targeting the years 1992-94. However, that one focused almost exclusively on manufacturing.

Subsequent surveys covered 1998-2000 (carried out by the University of Pretoria), 2002-04, 2005-07, and 2010-12 (all three conducted by the HSRC). But the most recent, the results of which were published in 2013, prompted a comprehensive review of the survey process.  

One element the HSRC hopes will improve this time around is the response rate from businesses. This has been low throughout: in the last survey, published in 2013, only 12 per cent of companies approached for data submitted information.

Now the HSRC says it has made it simpler for companies to respond and increased the support it offers businesses that participate. It has also shifted its main method of interacting with companies from post and email to telephone contacts.

The HSRC has also hired 20 full-time staff to help companies respond, double the number in the previous survey, which targeted about 6,000 companies.

“Last time, assistants would have 600 companies each to follow up with. That’s way too many. This time they will have between 200 and 300 each,” said Cheryl Moses, the survey project manager.

The survey will target a range of firms, from very small to very large. However, it will not measure innovation in informal or township businesses—another growing sector of the South African economy. To make up for this, the HSRC expects to undertake a special survey of the informal sector next year, Glenda Kruss said.