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How African Innovation can take on the World

By Calestous Juma Special to CNN | 8/7/2013, 5:24 p.m.

Editor's note: Calestous Juma is professor of the Practice of International Development and faculty chair of Innovation for Economic Development Program at Harvard Kennedy School. He co-chairs the African Union's High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation, and is author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa. Twitter @calestous

In this period of gloomy economic forecasts, Africa's rise has become a widely discussed international policy topic. The sweeping optimism about Africa's economic prospects has been reinforced by 2013 projections that the continent will grow faster than the world average.

The content of the growth, however, has been a source of discomfort among African leaders. They worry that this growth is linked to a commodity boom which is fueled largely by China's demand.

Africa's ability to sustain its current growth will depend largely on how quickly it will be able to shift from reliance on traditional commodity markets to modern economic structures that focus on technology-driven development. The focus on innovation is emerging as a key theme in the Africa Union's long-term strategy, Agenda 2063.

The African Union appointed a high-level panel on science, technology and innovation to provide proposals on how the continent can leverage the world's fund of technological knowledge for economic transformation. The paper is chaired by myself and Professor Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Building on emerging trends across the continent, the panel's draft report, "On the Wings of Innovation: Africa 2024," makes key recommendations related to harnessing emerging technologies, constructing basic infrastructure, investing in higher technical training, and promoting entrepreneurship.

As a latecomer Africa has the benefit of tapping into vast quantities of technological knowledge available worldwide. The continent's leapfrogging into the mobile revolution illustrated the power of latecomer advantages. Africa is now the origin of new industries such as mobile money transfer. The mobile revolution is still in its infancy and is already being extended to other sectors such as health, education and agriculture.

Biotechnology

Another important area that promises to transform Africa is agricultural biotechnology. To date, only four African countries (South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan) have adopted transgenic crops. African scientists in additional countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana are at the forefront of leveraging biotechnology to address local agricultural challenges. They are focusing on problems such as pests, disease, drought and low nutritional content of staple crops.

In addition to technical work, policy makers across the continent are starting to review the laws that govern the same development of biotechnology to create freedom to innovate. This is akin to past efforts to liberalize the telecommunications market to create space for the entry of mobile phones.

Biotechnology is already a multi-billion dollar industry and the associated technical knowledge can be adapted to other sectors, such as health, industry and environment management. The experience gained in adopting mobile technologies and biotechnology will make it easier for Africa to move into other fields, such as nanotechnology and new materials. The debate over biotechnology is therefore a strategic battle to position Africa as a global player in the field of new technologies.