Africa’s ability to industrialise is hampered by misguided notions, such as the one that emphasises adding value to its raw materials.
Taiwan was once one of the world’s leading exporters of mushrooms. It did not become a global leader in the semi-conductor industry by adding value to mushrooms.
Neither did Finland dominate the world mobile phone market by adding value to wood. Dubai did not become one of the world’s leading aviation hubs by adding value to dates. Kenya’s success in mobile money transfer was not a result of adding value to tea.
This success was a result of acquiring, domesticating, and expanding technological capabilities. It came from upgrading the competence of the people.
The focus should, therefore, be on acquiring the knowledge underlying specific technologies. This knowledge can then be recombined to create new products, services, and industries.
The focus should be on industrial development that does not require countries to have their own raw materials.
However, this requires competence to identify emerging technologies, acquire them, and use them to develop new products. Most African governments pay too much attention to raw materials and too little to upgrading or valuing human resources.
Knowing which technologies provide a broad base for industrial development is key. For example, information and communication technologies serve as essential platforms, but most African countries have failed to view them as generic foundations for industrial diversification. Instead, they focus on devices and gadgets, not the underlying knowledge.
Political ideologies have also hampered Africa’s ability to harness the power of some of the emerging technological platforms. For example, by joining the European Union bandwagon against transgenic crops, Africa has hobbled its own capabilities in genomics.
The expiry of key patents on 3D printing has resulted in dramatic growth in the sector. Young African entrepreneurs in South Africa and Togo are already using 3D printing, but the strategic role of the technology has yet to receive the public policy support it deserves.
The aspiration of African countries to become innovation-driven economies is within reach, but it cannot be achieved without shifting policy attention from raw materials to upgrading human competence.
Emphasis should, therefore, be on strengthening education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
However, investing in technical education will achieve little unless there is a drastic shift in the mindset of Africa’s leaders. They need to strengthen the ability of their offices to monitor emerging technologies.
They can benefit from scientific and innovation advice for the sake of technological development in the same way they have historically relied on economic advice on global commodity markets.
Prof Juma teaches at Harvard Kennedy School where he specialises in technological innovation for development.