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Africa, Europe to advance knowledge-sharing on innovation

African universities should be at the centre of the continent’s innovation drive, providing knowledge and skills needed to entrench science, technology and innovation at the core of its socio-economic development.

The institutions should maintain strong links with the continent’s innovation community, backing it up with expertise and knowledge generated from research, said Mahama Ouedraogo, the African Union (AU) Commission’s director of Human Resources, Science and Technology.

Higher learning institutions should not only train and guide the youth into becoming innovators capable of creating jobs for the continent’s growing population of jobseekers graduating from universities and tertiary institutions annually, but should, themselves, be leaders in innovation, he said.

This, he observed, could be achieved through, among other things, establishing technology and innovation hubs to guide business start-ups with ideas on how to transform different sectors of the socio-economic lives of Africa’s people.

“It is important to acknowledge the role of universities in innovation ecosystems in Africa.

“Academic research is the basis of all innovation, so we must make sure that start-ups keep a strong link with universities,” the director told the final conference of the Africa-Europe Innovation Partnership (AEIP) pilot project.

The AEIP, launched in September 2019, is a pilot initiative of the African Union-European Union High-Level Policy Dialogue. It was initiated by the EU’s directorate for research and innovation to strengthen innovation cooperation between Africa and the EU that will feed into the Comprehensive EU-Africa Strategy.

It aims at supporting innovation and technology hubs, technology transfer offices, start-ups and entrepreneurs from both continents, to collaborate on solutions to the sustainable development challenges.

Investment in innovation

The AU, said Ouedraogo, appreciated the importance of innovation, thus it crafted the Science Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA 2024), a document meant to entrench science, technology and innovation in the continent’s development agenda.

Equally he noted, the AU’s Agenda 2063 development blueprint targets will be driven by innovations in education, agriculture, engineering, transport and technology, among other sectors, he told the virtual event.

“Africa’s economic transformation will require investment in innovation. This will lead to the creation of jobs, the creation of income and the eradication of poverty,” Ouedraogo added.

It is also in recognition of the fact that science, technology and innovation was critical to the transformation of the social economic fortunes of its people, that the AU had, nearly 10 years ago, founded the Pan African University, a postgraduate university of excellence, committed to nurturing Africa’s best talent.

‘Huge potential for innovations’

The AEIP had revealed that a huge potential for innovations existed in Africa, said Maria-Cristina Russo, the director for Global Approach and International Cooperation in Research and Innovation at the European Commission. The partnership had also exposed a big potential for cooperation in research with the continent’s universities, she added.

Innovations in Africa, she stressed, had a critical role in supporting the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. Innovations were about responding to the needs of society, thus making the inventions automatically support the attainment of the development goals, she said.

A total of 45 partnerships had been created under the AEIP since its inception, and more than 200 start-ups had been connected, she noted.

“It’s a big step for our Africa-EU cooperation on research and innovations, and based on common interests and mutual ownership,” the official added.

She cautioned, however, that African developers need to look beyond the EU collaborations and nurture partnerships and collaborations with one another, and within the continent.

“The numbers of partnerships we have created under the AEIP speak for themselves. Connect, connect and connect are the key words in collaborations. It should happen within Africa and between continents,” she counselled.

Drawing on local knowledge

According to Richard Labelle, the coordinator of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab of the African Development Bank Group, non-academic research institutions and national research or state-owned research entities equally had a role to play in inventions, since they are producers of knowledge.

There existed “incredible demand” for technological advances and inventions in Africa, but financing of ideas into tangible products was often in shortage, he noted. As a result, he advised technology start-ups to look for technology hubs in their localities and collaborate to actualise their ideas.

The AEIP project had benefited from technical and management assistance from the EU, while offering a market for ideas and innovations. On the other hand, Africans contributed to the partnership by availing local knowledge, he revealed.

European collaborators had found their African allies as a useful resource during the pilot project, benefiting from their deep understanding of local community as well as the local innovation landscape, Clare Turner, the senior international relations officer, Imperial College, UK, told University World News.

“We have found the AEIP network really valuable. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, many of the visits and activities that we had hoped to happen obviously did not. However, we now see the Africa tech hub network as key partner in research and capacity building funding bids,” said Turner.

The institution tried, circumstances allowing, to bring on board African technology hubs into funding and other calls relevant to the continent, she disclosed. This was despite interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. It was expected that research partnerships established with African universities would continue even after the end of the AEIP pilot.

She added: “We find that the local networks that they have, the in-depth knowledge of their community and their convening power mean that they can be great partners and ensure that we have a diverse range of voices represented.”

The cooperation established had helped to deepen innovation cooperation between Europe and Africa, leading to the creation of a working group on innovation between continents, observed EU official, Nina Commeau-Yannoussis.

The group, she said, will develop a roadmap for research and innovation cooperation, mutually beneficial to both sides.

The conference marked the official end of the AEIP pilot, and focused on stock-taking and sharing information of the key results across all activities undertaken. It also focused on discussing ways to continue collaborating, but in a more sustainable manner in the future.