By Lane Richmond

“Steve jobs once said, ‘Innovation determines the difference between the leaders and the followers.’ We all know Eswatini has been a follower for a very, very long time, so now we want to know how we can become a leader.”

This is an assertion made by Tengetile Hlophe, an Associate Researcher at the Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SEPARC), during her presentation on ‘Mapping the National System of Innovation of Eswatini’ at a Science Symposium and Exhibition last week (June 29) at the Royal Swazi Spa Convention Centre. The two-day symposium was hosted by the Royal Science and Technology Park (RSTP) in collaboration with the Swaziland Environmental Authority (SEA), University of Swaziland, and Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology.

“When we talk about science, technology, and innovation (STI), we should all understand that we are talking about the implementation of a national development strategy. If we want to eradicate poverty, deal with climate change issues, and deal with agricultural issues, we are talking about science, technology, and innovation,” she noted.

Tengetile used an illustration of a plant, explaining that a National System of Innovation (NSI) needs to be a self-sustainable cycle, like that of a plant’s life cycle. She pointed out that policies, regulation, research and development (R&D) funding, and education are the seeds of a NSI, which then grows into knowledge, STI personnel, and infrastructure development similar to a young plant.

Tengetile further explained that the young plant then begins to grow into a mature plant and starts to transfer, adopt, absorb, and commercialise knowledge and technology – then finally, the plant begins to flower into goods, services, and industrial growth. This sustainable NSI life cycle creates economic growth, improved well-being, and technological change. She also explained that there are key actors that enable a plant to grow, like the sun, water, and nutrients from the soil and similarly, a NSI needs the constant interaction of the government, industry, higher education institutions and research centres, as well as finance to grow and produce fruits.

Last year, SEPARC conducted a study to map the NSI in Eswatini and identify key actors and activities in the NSI. The study found that R&D expenditure in the country accounts for only 0.26 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) while the national target is 1 percent. Of this R&D expenditure, 64 percent goes to applied R&D and only 22 percent goes towards experimental development.

“We all know that knowledge is commercialised within experimental development. However, only 7% of expenditure in this category goes towards machinery and equipment, while 1% is invested in software and 64% goes into labour. But what are they working on if they do not have adequate equipment and technology?” wondered the associate researcher.

The study also found that the 757 R&D personnel who were interviewed during the survey comprised 360 researchers and only 92 technicians. “So, if the researchers come up with ideas, who will implement their concepts if we do not have technicians? Also, of these researchers 16% had PhDs and only 5% were women. Why is that? Why do we only have 5% of women researchers with PhDs in Eswatini?”

The study also found that of the 757 personnel, only 9.5% were natural scientists and engineers. “In trying to understand our NSI it is clear that these are some of the reasons why we are not creating knowledge that can be commercialised and be profitable,” Tengetile added.

The associate researcher further pointed out that collaboration between industry and higher education institutions is incredibly low. She also noted that industry collaboration with suppliers is mostly from outside Eswatini, which means there is no collaboration within the country’s national system of innovation.

Tengetile then cited an example of four men racing; three are pushing a box and a fourth is rolling a ball. “If we are saying we want to be innovative, let them push the box and let us push the circle – we will get there faster. If we want to be a knowledge driven economy we have to think outside the box, or rather, like there is no box.”

In terms of innovation, the study found that of the companies surveyed, 52% had introduced innovations but more than 50% of these originated from outside the country. This is due to limitations in science and technology policy as well as insufficient flexibility of regulation. Most of the companies argued that they lack the necessary resources, financial funding, and information on technology to introduce new innovations into their businesses.

“So how can we support them? Who funds ideas in Eswatini? Who funds an idea? How do we set the priorities for funding science, technology, and innovation? How do we mobilise our resources and share them? Everyone has their separate funding, but if we want to see an impact, collective resource sharing is the way to go. We need to build our innovation system from within,” Tengetile emphasised.

“First, we need to create a national STI Strategy where the Ministries of Finance, ICT, and Economic Planning are at the forefront of its development and financing. Then we need to fund knowledge creation by investing in R&D and education. We need to provide proper incentive structures for industry to engage in innovation. We also need to update legislature and intellectual property protection structures. Lastly, we must improve STI governance, collaboration, and cooperation. This is the key to it all. How should we facilitate collaboration? By placing it in policy to ensure that there is collaboration between entities.”

What the study also suggests is the creation of a conducive environment for innovation. The researcher noted that Eswatini needs to take leaf from the lifecycle of a plant and strengthen its roots as a country and an economy. She said the country can strengthen its NSI by creating opportunities.

“We can empower the youth and women in STI and promote education. Next, we can ask ourselves: what is made in Eswatini? Every morning when you prepare to go to work or school, how many products do you use that are made by Emaswati?  This is an existing market that will be there for generations to come. Which industries are we growing? Are we growing Emaswati-owned industries or South African?”

Tengetile emphasised the need to create value chains and indigenous knowledge systems that can be commercialised. In addition, she noted that the country needs to foster innovation through government procurement policy and use institutions like the Swaziland Standards Authority (SWASA) to help start up new innovative firms in Eswatini.

In conclusion, she added that “we should also be able to create policies that are receptive to the strategies that we have come up with. If we want something, let us make sure that we create the platform for it to be implemented and also align our central policies. But what is key and most important is that we vigorously instil a culture of innovation in Emaswati, simply because innovation is just a mind-set. If we have that culture, we will be able to innovate and we will be able to come up with products that will ensure that we develop as a country.”