A high-level panel debated Innovation and Technology Transfer for Enhanced Productivity and Competitiveness over the weekend, as part of several core topics at the ECA Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development and AU Conference of Ministers of Economy and Finance.
Pravin Gordhan, Minister of Finance for South Africa, chaired the panel and said, “as Africans, we have to be very creative in deciding what kind of niche we want to explore.” He said that Africa must resist “short term-ism,” and focus on beneficial coordination over harmful competition.
He acknowledged that “we have a lot of confidence in ourselves,” but posed the question, what can Africa do that is innovative and different in order to become competitive in the global marketplace?
Yvonne Okwara, Presenter for KTN, moderated the session and began by asking Donald Kaberuka, President of African Development Bank (AfDB), if the technologies Africa has been importing were adopted with the local context in mind.
Kaberuka suggested that industrialization is more than technology. He said the most important thing was a “winning mindset.” He was emphatic on that point, and shortly thereafter, Mariam Mahamat Nour, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation in Chad, would offer her agreement.
She said, “the challenges are weighty,” and repeated that success is all about state of mind. She celebrated the idea of Agenda 2063 for its long term ambition and insisted that innovation must be included in the plan. She emphasized the importance of having the discipline to invest in the long term via research and training.
She urged further discipline when adopting technologies, stating, “we cannot adopt just anything that is made available. We must have a sense of discernment.”
This discernment was also at the heart the comments made by Professor Justin Lin, Honorary Dean of the National School of Development, Peking University. He said technology transfer held great potential for Africa. While high income countries on the global frontiers of tech must invest heavily in the risky proposition of inventing in order to stay competitive, developing countries can import tech at low risk and cost and maintain growth of “seven, eight, or nine percent.”
The question, though, is which technologies to adopt. Professor Lin insisted that countries could maximize growth by focusing on technologies to modernize the sectors where they already have a competitive advantage.
He said, if you import technology in areas where you lack a competitive advantage, even if it is cutting edge, it won’t help. Conversely, bringing improved technology to the competitive sectors will stimulate rapid growth.
He added that Africa’s huge pool of young labor was another advantage, and that countries should focus on importing technologies for labor intensive industries. He mentioned China’s 85 million employees in manufacturing, saying those jobs will need a new home when they soon leave China.