Gertrude Ngabirano is the executive secretary of the East African Science and Technology Commission (EASTECO), a regional body established in 2015 to promote and co-ordinate the development, management and application of science and technology to support integration and socio-economic development in the bloc. Business Times’ Hudson Kuteesa caught up with her to discuss the organisation’s role in supporting EAC development efforts, especially research-led development, as well as why regional governments should commit more funds to science and technological research and innovation. Excerpts:
The East African Science and Technology Commission was set up two years ago. What have you achieved so far?
One of the key achievements is that we brought together regional stakeholders in science and technology for the first, which created a platform to dialogue among themselves.
We have also been able to get the countries to agree on the priority areas in the areas of science, technology and innovation that the region should focus on. This resulted in development of a five-year strategic plan for 2017 to 2021. This is the blueprint guiding cooperation between EAC states and entities and identifies the priority areas in which the five member countries should cooperate.
What are the priority areas that you have set?
The four priority areas agreed on during the next first five years are; working on evidence-based policies that will help the region to work together, we will engage with policy makers. Presently, there is no regional science and technology policy, we will be looking at things like innovation policy, bio-technology policy, among others in the first five years.
The second priority area is we look to promote knowledge and innovation in science and technology to enhance education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). We want to see how researchers in the regional can collaborate, share experiences and learn from each.
We want to put in place guidelines that allow say, researchers in Kenya to be able to work in Rwanda and vice versa to maximise the available resources and expertise. This will also help avoid duplication of research in the region. In line with this, we will establish a journal on scientific research.
The third priority area, we want to apply Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) for socio-economic development. This is a key area because we don’t want to leave science and technology in the lab or white papers. We want to be able to use it to benefit the ordinary person.
We have identified a few areas where we think the East African region has a competitive advantage or can get a lot of benefits from interventions in that area: value addition in agriculture since the sector employs the majority of the population.
We believe that agro-processing will enable the region to get more value from its raw materials and also create jobs. We are looking at ways of improving energy generation for industrial use by embracing renewable energy solution; and enhancing technological capability of micro and small enterprises by formulating enabling policies and supporting export-oriented industrial development and trade. Another area we will be looking at is information and communication technology because we believe it can help the region’s youthful population exploit its creative energy working with new technologies.
The fourth priority relates to building an institutional framework that will help make this plan work, and also how best to engage stakeholders in this process.
What are some of the main challenges hampering growth of technology and innovation in the region?
Africa and East Africa in particular are lagging behind in terms of global benchmarks for education standards, more so, in science education. For instance, enrollment in schools keeps dropping at every level: there is universal primary education in most EAC states, but students never go to complete their studies. Those who attain tertiary or university education are just a small fraction and the quality of education is still low.
There is also lack of support systems for innovators or to make best use of researchers because they are few good researchers.
There is also good research that has already been carried out in the region, but utilising these findings and innovations is always a problem. The commission’s job will be to try and reverse this trend to ensure such knowledge translates into better opportunities, efficiency and supports development efforts in the region, among others.
Does East Africa have right policies for science and technology to thrive?
One of the reasons EASTECO was created is to assist partner states to enact policies that promote science and technology, especially research funding, promotion of innovation and protection of property rights of innovators and the creative sector developers.
The commission brings together EAC stakeholders to agree on regional policies, which are then domesticated by member states. So, it will now be faster to develop and draft good policies at the national level.
Do you think regional governments are doing enough to support science and technology?
The governments have pledged to support science, technology and innovation by committing at least one per cent of their national GDP to the sector.
However, it is still a challenge for some of them to meet that funding. But they are committed to support science and technology development in spite of the resource constraints; many of the member states contribute more than 0.5 per cent of GDP already.
EASTECO is primarily funded by the East African Community partner states through the EAC budget
What are you doing to attract more funding for science and technology in the region?
The funds from EAC member states cater for so many votes, including health and education, among others. But we are trying to see how we can maximise what we get as we lobby for more resources from partners and regional governments to finance research and science initiatives.
We will also work with decision-makers to make them understand the contribution of science, technology and innovation to socio-economic development of the region. We are confident that once this is understood, they will support our push for more allocations from EAC governments, as well as funding from well-wishers. However, we believe governments should fund our development initiatives.
What role can the private sector play in science and technology?
The private sector is key to science and technology because they are the users of any innovation or research. Secondly, they need to fund research and development of science and technology as direct beneficiaries of any innovations. Remember, the private sector and industries thrive on research. So, the private sector must partner with us.
What are you doing to make East Africa more competitive going forward?
We are working to make the region more competitive in innovations and technology to ensure efficiency in trade and manufacturing. East Africa has a comparative advantage in agriculture, which it should maximise by embracing value addition so as to become exporters of finished products and not just raw materials.
Secondly, we have indigenous knowledge that has not been exploited by, for instance putting in place policies to guide its use and protect intellectual rights of owners of this knowledge. We also need to invest more in research to ensure evidence based policy-making, development and industrialisation.
Therefore, we have to be able to commercialise indigenous knowledge and turn research findings into products that will serve the population, but will also make the region competitive on the global arena. Currently, East Africa lags behind in terms of global trade; we want this to change.