Public sector research institutions need to develop strategic partnerships with indigenous Swazi companies to drive technological innovation to ensure sustainable economic growth and poverty alleviation, says Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SEPARC) Executive Director Dr Thula Dlamini.

Speaking during a seminar hosted by SEPARC in collaboration with the University of Swaziland (Faculty of Agriculture) at the Luyengo campus, he said this was particularly important following the establishment of the Royal Science and Technology Park, which should bring with it opportunities for public-private partnerships in research and Swaziland’s knowledge economy.

University of Arkansas Professor Lawton Lanier Nalley, who was in the country to give a talk on endogenous growth in agriculture through technology parks, said research parks were important because they were a mechanism for the transfer of academic research findings, a source of knowledge spillovers, and a catalyst for national and regional economic growth.

He said research parks also provide a two-way flow of knowledge between private and public research to solve common problems. “Public-private collaboration through investment in basic research can lead to improvements in productivity growth at industry and societal levels,” he added.

Dr Nalley said as Swaziland starts to feel the benefits of the Royal Science and Technology Park, new opportunities would arise from both private and public sector research. Furthermore, he noted that while private companies were after well-trained human capital, often at low market prices, public research institutions still needed to collaborate with the private sector for funding to derive maximum impact on national and regional economic growth.

The professor said given that one of the sectors of the Royal Science and Technology Park was biotechnology, which would play a more important role in feeding a growing global population, the challenge was that it requires both research and marketing capital for development and subsequent acceptance, hence both private and public participation were equally necessary.

“It is important to find out from the companies their needs, as well as what their customers/clients need to inform the kind of research to conduct,” he advised. Citing examples, the professor said public-private partnerships had resulted in the Arkansas Research Park generating approximately $55 million (about E729.3 million) of growth into the Arkansas economy annually, with the park having an economic impact of over $500 million (about E6.63 billion) since it was built in 2003, due to public and private companies working together for common goals.

He further noted that such collaborations provided a win-win situation for both public and private institutions, through research papers for the former and market related data for the latter.

For instance, the professor illustrated, for every dollar/lilangeni companies spent on research, they would receive over 33% return on investment, as there were many facets of research that the public sector has a comparative advantage in, such as established research centres, large faculties, and cheap labour in the form of graduate students.

Likewise, there are many facets of research that private sectors have a comparative advantage in, including capital, entrepreneurship, and intellectual property. “Public institutions need to provide an incubator for innovation and information to feed to private institutions and in turn, the general population,” he noted.

Furthermore, Dr Nalley said as public money was subject to continuous volatility, the relationship between private and public entities would only grow stronger. He noted that one company or institution would never solve issues such as food insecurity, commodity price volatility due to climate change, drought adaptation, and public health but rather, it would take the collaboration of public institutions’ expertise as well as private sector funding and marketing to address these issues.

In line with this thought, UNISWA’s Professor Comfort Mndebele, who represented the faculty of agriculture’s dean, said the Royal Science and Technology Park would offer public-private partnerships in research and publication, teaching and learning, community engagement, entrepreneurship, and innovation – particularly in sustainable agricultural development.

He said the onus was now upon academia to think of scholarships in entrepreneurship and innovation that would complement each other to assist the public institutions in meeting the needs of both industry and the communities. Professor Mndebele went on to applaud the University for collaborating with SEPARC and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Swaziland in hosting Professor Nalley, who was accompanied by his colleagues, Dr Leslie Edgar and Professor Amy Farmer from the University of Arkansas.

Malkerns Research Station Chief Research Officer Similo Mavimbela, who gave a vote of thanks at the seminar, said Swaziland was indeed currently looking at forming linkages between the public and private sectors, especially following the establishment of the Royal Science and Technology Park.

“Swaziland’s goal is to improve food security, job creation and economic growth; hence we need such institutions as the Royal Science and Technology Park because we need such platforms where we can identify both the public and private sectors’ needs, as well as those of farmers and consumers. We need platforms where we can engage industry and convince them that we have the human capacity to address their market needs and that there’s no need for them to use external researchers,” he added.

Adding, SEPARC’s Dr Dlamini emphasised the need to focus on indigenous Swazi companies for collaborations because multinational corporations, which are operating in the country, were a bit of a challenge since they usually rely on their headquarters located outside the country for their Research and Development needs. Dr Dlamini was responding to a question posed by Dr Mcebisi Mkhwanazi who wanted to know what academia should do given that there was generally a lack of appetite in funding or even engaging in research and development by multinational corporations in Swaziland.

About Professor Nalley
He received a BSc degree in agricultural and development economics with minors in development studies and European history from The Ohio State University, and his MSc degree in agricultural economics from Mississippi State focusing his research on experimental auctions. He earned his PhD in agricultural economics (with an emphasis on international policy) from Kansas State University. While at Kansas State, he conducted research at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico City on the welfare analysis of international public wheat breeding. He also served as a volunteer in Ghana surveying women’s cooperatives in regards to microfinance loans. Dr Nalley’s current research emphasis is on international agricultural policy, the economics of public plant breeding, and international development.