By Sharon Atieno

A Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) revolution is steadily emerging in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Results of ongoing Research and Development(R&D) activities in 15 countries show that, with appropriate support, SSA can discard the widespread notion of being a place where STI is at a standstill in a 21st century world that is seemingly overloaded with scientific prowess.

The region’s Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI) is behind ongoing innovative efforts to fund and strengthen the management and coordination of SSA’s national science systems including productive engagement with policymakers and development partners in terms of coordination and practical promotion of technological activities within and beyond national borders.

“Effective funding of Science Granting Councils (SGC) is contributing towards sustainable development driven by STI especially if the support focuses on research areas that directly contribute towards the socio-economic development needs of the participating countries,” says Dr. Ellie Osir – senior programme specialist with International Development Research Centre (IDRC) during an interview focusing on various aspects of SGCI and the SGCs in SSA.

“SGCs are central to funding and catalyzing research and innovation. Challenges facing the Councils include limited capacity, inadequate funding, overlapping roles and need for improved coordination with other agencies. There is also the urgent need for appropriate legislations and implementation of science and research funding policies.”

Dr. Ellie Osir, Senior Programme Specialist IDRC

In discussing the origins of the Initiative, Dr. Osir explained that “because of the previous related work done in South Asia, IDRC convened the first meeting joined by South Africa’s National Research Fund (NRF) and United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID). Initially we were to work with eight SGCs as the criteria was to work with countries that have a Council, but more countries expressed interest.”

However, the ongoing silent revolution is also rooted in a five-year programme document or proposal titled DFID, IDRC and NRF PARTNERSHIP STRENGTHENING THE CAPACITIES OF SCIENCE GRANTING COUNCILS IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA- March 30, 2015. The programme remains focused on research and evidence-based policies that contribute towards socio-economic development.

The countries involved in the Programme include Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cote d’ Ivoire, Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana and Rwanda.

IDRC provides grants for development research and has extensive experience in brokering knowledge, influencing policy research, and strengthening organizational and research capacity with strong connections in the region through its Regional Office for Sub-Saharan Africa based in Nairobi; and DFID’s East Africa Research Hub (EARH) is mandated to strengthen research and science systems in the region.

According to Dr. Osir increases in science funding is in line with the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA) 2024 but governments will not put in more money if they don’t see the outcome. Thus, SGCs are supposed to use STI indicators to convince the government of the impact of their research.

African governments have made commitments to increase their Gross Domestic Expenditures on Research and Development (GERD). For instance, Kenya made a commitment to allocate 2% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to research and development.

However, the key objectives of the programme includes strengthening SGC’s ability to: manage, design and monitor research programmes using robust STI indicators; support knowledge exchange with the private sector and establish partnerships with other science system actors and it also meant appropriate networking and sharing.

Dr Osir pointed out that apart from low capacity to undertake their work, the Councils also worked in isolation across borders, focusing only on their own countries and this was worsened by the lack of funding from their own governments. Currently, for example, scientists in Uganda and Cote d’ Ivoire are collaborating in research aiming to improve yam production.

Having been among leading researchers at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), Dr Osir who is well versed in matters related to R&D activities in Africa, notes that SGCI’s support for Councils to work together is among its major achievements.

The programme included entering into cooperation agreements by signing MoUs and undertaking activities together. Even more the MoUs are supposed to enable the Councils to cooperate even after the SGCI has gone, he notes.

Dr Osir adds: “We have supported SGCs to undertake high quality research competitions with calls being done properly while some are even done using online platforms to monitor research. If the Councils are able to make correct decisions about the research they fund, they will be able to have positive socio-economic impacts.”

The need for harmonization has become obvious. With SGCI support, Councils are able to align their own priorities to be in line with those of national socio-economic development.

However, Dr. Osir said, “all Councils were not at the same level in their capacity meaning we had to change the approach to the program and make a more tailored approach in capacity strengthening which ended up being more expensive as it involved going country by country.”

He notes that some Councils, for example, Kenya’s National Research Fund (NRF) has a few people and as a result building capacity becomes challenging.

“Sometimes you train people and find that after a year they have been moved or transferred to other departments or organizations thus making continuity a challenge as you have to keep training new people. Working with the same people throughout ensures the sharing and utilization of knowledge,” Dr. Osir emphasized.

Emerging trends

There is growing interest for the Councils to work together, Dr. Osir said. The East African Community, for example, is trying to harmonize activities across the member countries.

The Councils are also trying to work together in harmony with the concept of rationalization. The East African Science and Technology Commission (EASTECO) is a regional commission with membership that includes Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi and South Sudan.

The emerging positive trend also includes a push to invest more money into STI. The African Union Commission (AUC) is pushing member countries to invest at least 1 % of GDP into R&D activities.

On matters of policies, Dr. Osir says “changing policies, which is done by governments at national levels, was not really our interest but each commissioned paper resulted in a policy brief and might have in some cases influenced some policies but we do not have the evidence yet.

The SGCI is attracting more funders and more interest. It started with pioneering three – IDRC, NRF and DFID- then Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and Germany Research Foundation (DFG) came on board. The SGCI will expand, Phase One will end in September 2020. SGCI Phase Two started two years ago and was funded by SIDA, IDRC and DFG which has come particularly to fund research projects.

A lot of funders are interested in providing funds to the Councils, Dr. Osir reveals. The idea is that if they start being more active, their governments will come in and give more money to invest in STI.

However, he warns that the 1% by countries sometimes includes money coming from outside and sometimes it’s not genuinely 1% of GDP in Research and Development.

Manufacturing and industrialization
Dr. Osir acknowledges that manufacturing and industrialization is a major objective of African countries. However, there was no explicit objective to focus on industrialization as such. It was not in the purview of the SGCI.

But it is well noted that the idea of moving from primary production like farming or agriculture to manufacturing is a key objective of most Councils as they want to align with national goals.

However, he adds that with appropriate policies, industrialization and manufacturing can be linked to private sector partnerships involving engagements with academia and research institutes funded by SGCs.This is more so if the researchers have the capacity to position their research for uptake.

Finally, increased knowledge exchange with the private sector based on research evidence also enables SGCs to develop policies that strengthen links with actors in the sector thus promoting innovation.

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