Innovation: Key to Reengineering Africa’s Development

Published on 17th July 2016

Africa is a paradox of sort. Without being immodest, Africans are the remaining real human beings on earth. By this I mean in their essential humanity, having not been so tainted by human progress, which some have argued, quite paradoxically, as being responsible for the continent’s arrested development. However, this is false choice, for to argue like this is to say that being essentially human and being developed are mutually incompatible.

But I digress. I stated in a recent conference that there are two conceptual Africas. The first is the Africa endowed with humongous human and material resources. The second is the largely underdeveloped Africa that mirrors a continent ravaged by slavery and colonialism, made desolate by wars, hunger, poverty and is the leading global aid recipient region.

Africa is said to be a young population, even with her 1.2 billion people, most of whom are young, with the potential of providing a huge market and a pool from which a vibrant labour force can be derived. These are critical elements of development. This is besides the abundant natural resources that make Africa one of the resource-richest regions of the world.

However, on the converse, while slavery and colonialism ravaged much of the world, including the Americas and Asia, until mid 20th Century, Africa had the worst experience from which she is yet to recover. Beyond language, no other part of the world still carries the scaring imprimatur of colonialism the way Africa does. While colonialism was an episode in Asia and the Americas, it was an epoch in Africa and has largely determined the trajectory of the continent since. This tragic phenomenon has been well documented as neo-colonialism.

Again, while the continent never fully recovered from its own internal combustion from inter-ethnic conflicts of the pre-colonial era, Africa’s conflagration has been accentuated by artificial partitioning by European powers in the late 19th Century. Even with independence, Africa has not had much peace, as it became the battle ground in proxy wars between the superpowers until the end of the Cold War. Africa is still a hotbed of armed conflicts in the post Cold War era, with the continent deeply enmeshed in religious and civil wars. According to the National Interest, ‘In 2014, Africa experienced more than half of worldwide conflict incidents, despite having only about 16 percent of the world population. This is a slightly larger share of the world’s conflicts than even during the chaotic years of the post-Cold War 1990s’. All these have arrested or slowed development in Africa and the statistics are not flattering.

According to the World Bank estimate of GDP per capita in 2015, the average for sub-Saharan Africa is $1,571.3 compared to Middle East and North Africa’s $7,342.3, or EU’s $31,843.2, North America’s monstrous $54,580 and even the world’s average of $9995.6. Even the $1,571.3 average figure would appear deceptive if we consider that Seychelles, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Botswana recorded $25,439.92, $19,818.11, $17,053.47 and $16,578.59 respectively, with most countries in the bottom half recording less than $1,000 and those at the rock bottom registering less than $400. By the account of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Africa led the global begging troupe with a total aid outflow to Africa in 2013 at $46 billion, only followed by Asia in a distant second with $25 billion.

From these grim statistics emerged the fact that one in two persons in Africa is poor. That is even on the average; it is worse in some places. But we don’t need academic statistics to know that there is poverty, ignorance and diseases in Africa. Of course, we should by now be tired of asking the paradoxical question or wonderment on why Africa should be so blessed and the people are so poor.

Innovation is an important driver of growth and development. The economic, political, social and even entertainment leadership of the OECD countries in the world is as a result of their leadership in innovation. We see this in the creation and diffusion of new products, processes and methods. Their firms invest as much in the knowledge-based assets that drive innovation, such as software, databases, research and development, firm-specific skills and organisational capital. The third edition of the Oslo Manual (OECD and Eurostat, 2005) defines innovation as the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations.

An innovation must have novelty. This novelty can be to the firm, to the market or to the world. Sometimes, it can be a combination of some or all. Inventions like electricity, automobile, computer and, lately, applications, fit this bill. Indeed, it will take an innovation to solve any problem. It stands against reason that a problem can be solved by repeating an approach, instrument and idea that hitherto failed, as we are always tempted to do. It is innovation, the bringing of something new into a situation, that brings change. In other words, change is innovation. Therefore, if you want to change a situation, bring innovation.

In looking at Africa’s development challenges, there is the need to identify the persistence of certain issues. The first problem is the disarticulation of Africa’s economy. Africa is the least economically integrated region in the world. This is best illustrated in the pattern of trade within the continent. According to the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), in a 2015 report, only 14 percent of Africa’s total trade is within the continent. This implies that the remaining 86 per cent is with other regions. In contrast, North America’s internal trading is 61 per cent, EU is 62 per cent while Central America is 45 per cent. The reasons for this, according to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is that Africa produces primary products and imports finished products which the continent does not produce. This can be effectively addressed with switching from being producers of primary to secondary goods and adding value. Adding value creates a value chain that increases the momentum of development.

In our own little way, when our administration was inaugurated, we made a policy that all government’s purchases must be made within the state, except where it is absolutely necessary to do otherwise. This created a value chain that raised the economy of our state from bottom up and empowered people mostly in the grassroots, especially artisans. In a small way, that is innovation. If this should happen on a larger scale, continent wide, where most of government spending is retained locally, the result would be transformational in a very short time.

There have been several and far-reaching attempts at African integration. These are commendable. However, rather than geld the continent economically, they are dangerously going towards political integration. Specific attempts should be made, apart from the point I made earlier on adding value and transiting secondary producers, tariff and non tariff barriers to trade in the continent should be removed. There has to be a creative way of doing this. It is disheartening that more economic interaction is done informally than is done formally because of tariff and non-tariff hindrances.

One other factor is non-competitiveness in Africa’s economy. A 2015 competitiveness report by the World Bank laments that Africa’s economy is the least competitive globally and has remained in the same position for 15 years. The various causes of these include absence of innovation and poor productivity. I believe these two are mutually reinforcing. Even in agriculture which is the main occupation in Africa, productivity has been very low. While Nigeria and much of Africa are leading producers of cassava for instance, the traditional yield per hectare has been around 10 tonnes while global average in 2010 was put at 12.5 tonnes. However, India’s average yield in 2010 was 34.8 tonnes per hectares.

If Africa can double her food output from cultivating the same land size as she currently does, it is possible to eliminate hunger from the continent. But this will require innovation in crop science, mechanisation, improved inputs and agriculture entrepreneurship. The knowledge base has to be widened and scientific findings have to be brought to (and applied by) the farmers. Regrettably, much of agriculture practices in Africa are still primitive.

One interesting cause of low productivity is poor health, especially caused by malaria. It has been established that malaria cuts productivity in Africa by as much as 40 per cent. It is a major cause of poverty, just as it is also a product of poverty. There should be an innovative way of eliminating malaria and other common diseases that debilitate health and reduce productivity in Africa. Simultaneous antimalaria treatment of all persons and destruction of vectors in a continent wide exercise has become necessary; a clear departure from the old practice of haphazard treatment that consistently generated drug resistant strains of the notorious plasmodium falciparum.

There is also the urgent need to bring innovation to agriculture for farm produce to be converted into secondary products. For instance, our foods have remained the same from time immemorial. It is the same type of foods we derive from our crops in the past that we still do now. Nutritionists and food scientists should find better uses for our crops. For instance, coconut in some parts of the world has become big business, with candies, cosmetics, medicine and animal feeds providing an industry that is geometrically bigger than the old practice of just cracking the hard shell and eating the nut.

There should also be specialisation, as way of increasing competitiveness and shore up the volume of trade within the continent. There are some places in Africa, in the eastern and central parts, countries like Zambia, Uganda and Kenya that are good in meat production. They can and should be made to specialise in producing the meat for the continent. There are other food items in which other countries have comparative advantages. A system of interdependence should be built around the strengths and needs of the countries of Africa.

The primary engine of development is education. This is where innovation is most needed. A functional system of education that develops and put to use the creativity of the people of Africa is urgently needed. I conceive of education as the preparation and development of worthy citizens for the immediate society and the world at large. Education is that infrastructure of the mind that develops our youths to become models of good character, innovation and competence. This is what we call Omoluabi in Yoruba. Omoluabl is the epitome of virtue. An Omoluabi persona is honest, courageous and rational; one who excels in character, innovation and competence. The educated person is well connected to his or her culture and heritage. Everything he/she does with others, the society, family and friends is driven by the desire to live and demonstrate good deeds. It is only when we interrogate this definition that we can know if we are meeting the objectives of education.

Education in Africa has not been an engine of development, rather, it is a system of social stratification where bland certificates are issued in order to separate the political and economic elites from the others. This is one of the factors responsible for poor productivity. Those who have certificates without the requisite skills cannot drive enterprise. They only see their certification as entitlement to privileges. Education therefore is not harnessing Africa’s brain for her development.

We see, sadly, how Africa’s vast human resources are tapped and brushed by other parts of the world and deployed for their own development. For instance, a report in the late 1980s put the population of Nigerian trained medical doctors in United States to be around 5,000. It should more than that today, if it has not doubled. Invariably, the tendency is for the brightest and the best to be sucked into the Euro-American development vortex, in what has been infamously dubbed ‘brain-drain.’ Africa’s educational and research institutions should be innovative to be able to attract and retain the continent’s best brains. The universities and research institutions should in the real sense begin to provide idea leadership. Contemporary issues and challenges should be the focus of research. Too often we see a gap between academic output and societal challenges. There should be workable academic solutions to the challenges of food shortage, housing shortage, unemployment and other ills of our society.

These ideas should be clear departures from orthodoxies and failed attempts at solving the problems ab initio. In other words, there should be innovation. We should be worried for instance that there are faculties of agriculture and even specialised universities of agriculture with full complement of professors. This is against the stark reality of hunger and food shortage in the continent. Research should not be for the purpose of obtaining promotion and academic chairs after which the papers begin to gather dust in some shelves. A template should be developed to convert research into practice.

Also, in light of the seminal works of Prof Babatunde Fafunwa, we should also consider the medium of teaching, which has remained the English language, French, Portuguese and possibly Arabic. Our children are not being taught in their mother tongue. The process of translating thought in English to Yoruba or any other indigenous language takes a long time. It takes not less than 25 years to be able to reason in English. Sometimes, some scientific concepts in foreign language are never understood, even when we pass examinations on them with flying colours.

Education received the greatest attention and resources from our administration. One of our first tasks was to convene an education summit, headed by the Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka. That summit produced the blueprint of our education reforms. In a state of roughly four million people, we embarked on an ambitious programme of building from scratch 100 elementary schools, 50 middle schools and 20 high schools. Each of these schools has a capacity for 600 pupils, with the high school being a three in one, each designed and equipped to sustain 1000 pupils. These new public schools soon began to displace private schools. We provided a stand-alone e-learning tablet, which we named ‘Opon Imo’ (tablet of knowledge), for final year students in public schools, in share display of creativity. This tablet contains all the recommended 56 textbooks by the three examination bodies for senior school certificate examinations in Nigeria. It contains also past questions of these bodies, a virtual classroom, extracurricular zone and the themes of Yoruba traditional religion.

This tablet was the saving grace in a year when teachers went on strike for eight months and did not prepare the final year students for their examinations. We also pioneered in a sense, the home grown school feeding programme (OMEALS), in which sumptuous meals are provided for 252,000 elementary school pupils on every school day. We say ‘in a sense’ because the programme had existed in an attenuated form prior to our coming, but our administration gave it a new identity and prominence. Because of its success in Osun, it has now been nationally adopted by the Federal Government. Our state organised a national induction for other states understudying the programme, preparatory to implementing it in their own states. I have also been invited to the British Parliament to share our experience with the world. The interesting aspect of this programme, as it relates with innovation, is that it is integrated with our agriculture policy and local empowerment. Under it, 3000 community based caterers were employed, trained and assisted financially to set up. Also, to be able to feed these pupils, 15,000 whole chickens, 254,000 eggs, 35 heads of cattle and 400 tonnes of catfish are purchased weekly from farmers and food vendors. This has kept the farmers in profitable business and even attracted other youths to farming.

In keeping with the original objective of making the programme home grown, the O’MEALS has an input supply chain that is linked to our various agricultural development projects. Consequently, our Osun Fisheries Out-growers Production Scheme (OFOPS) provide the catfish used for the school feeding programme while Osun Broilers Out-growers Programme (OBOPS) provide part of the chickens.

Another innovation we brought to governance is the engagement of two tranches of 20,000 youths in public works. They were not given permanent employment but engaged as volunteers and given a monthly allowance. They were eventually given soft landing in the various empowerment schemes of the government in agriculture and information communication technology. In less than two years of taking the youths off the streets, crime rate in the state dropped to rock bottom. It also reflated the local economy since the N200 million monthly allowances given to them percolated into the grassroots. It is government money well spent. The programme has since been adopted by the World Bank and introduced nationally in a modified form. Again, the blueprint for national implementation was provided by our administration. It is to be imagined what a programme like this can achieve in a continent-wide basis if most of the unemployed youths are mopped off the streets and put in a place of self development while carrying out public works.

African governments must also introduce innovations into public administration in order to increase their revenue base, reduce the cost of governance and bring effectiveness. A simple policy of e-payment doubled our revenue from N300 million to N600 million, when we directed that all government’s revenues through taxes, fines, levies and dues be paid directly into government accounts in the banks, and not through middlemen or directly to any government agency again.

On a final note, let me say that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel again. We can take the principles that brought development for others and modify them to our peculiar circumstances and needs in a most innovative way. Let me conclude on a positive note. In place of Afro-pessimism and Afrocentric inspired optimism, we should develop an Afro-realism with a little optimistic outlook. The democratic ferments in Africa, emanating from increased understanding by people that government, the basis of its composition and by extension, the policies it embarked upon, must be derived from the consent of the people and; secondly, the diffusion of developments in other places continues to put pressure on leaders.

This brings a glimmer of hope. This hope should be watered and nurtured into concrete action that will bear the fruits of the desired development. There are already surfeits of predictions that Africa has the greatest potential for growth and empirical evidence that she has a very favourable return on investment and may soon overtake Asia.

By Rauf Aregbesola

Osun State Governor, Nigeria.

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