It seems science, technology and innovation are still a novel concept in Swaziland, as seen through the minimal expenditure the private and public sectors commit to research and development.

A Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SEPARC) survey reveals that Swaziland currently spends about E127 million on research and development activities, with development partners contributing significantly towards the funding of research and development activities at 56.4% followed by the government at 35.1% and higher education at 6.5%.

The total investment in research and development equals 0.24% of gross domestic product (GDP), which is lower than the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and African Union target of 1% of GDP in terms of research and development investment by member states.

SEPARC Researcher Tengetile Hlophe, who represented Swaziland together with officers from the Royal Science and Technology Park (RSTP), reported that the survey revealed that the country’s business sector funds only 1% of research and development activities, which is in line with the observed structure of the industry of Swaziland, as most companies are multinational corporations and these do not conduct R&D in-house.

“In the private sector, research and development activities are either outsourced or conducted at the company headquarters outside the country. Further analysis of the expenditure shows that Swaziland largely conducts applied research and development,” she said, adding that the prominent expenditure in the business sector goes towards experimental development whilst higher education has a balanced distribution between basic, applied and experimental development, and government conducts more applied research.

The survey found that a large chunk of the resources set aside for research and development go towards paying for labour followed by current and capital expenditures. “Very little funds go towards the procurement of machinery and equipment needed for conducting research. Similarly, the country spends very little money on software,” said Hlophe.

She said a direct relationship between the type of research and development activities performed in the country to capital investment was observed, as basic and experimental development research were associated with high investments in capital goods.

While research and development investment in Swaziland is very low, it was found that investment in human capital in this industry is even lower. There are currently more male researchers with PhD qualifications in Swaziland than females, while there are 25% more females with Bachelor’s degree than males; however, females are fewer in natural science and engineering fields.

Overall, the survey found that natural scientists and engineers make up 9.5% of the total research and development personnel, with agricultural sciences very high at 31.7%; government has more research personnel in agricultural sciences and social sciences than in the natural and engineering sciences, and this is also true in the private and non-profit sector, which has more health and medical scientists than it has natural or engineering scientists.

“As industries become more complex and technological, investments in scientific and technological skills are fundamental to driving STI development in Swaziland. The survey shows that the scientific and technological development of the country is not yet driven by STI,” said Hlophe. “With low investments in research and development, the country has been unsuccessful in developing new goods and services for its markets, let alone compete in the regional economy.”

The researcher noted that as Swaziland strives to become a knowledge-based economy, monitoring knowledge and research systems is primal to providing evidence for policy development. She said the survey results present an opportunity for decision makers to change the prevailing development system in Swaziland and to lay an obligatory environment for STI to be used as an engine for development, as envisaged in the National Development Strategy.

“Private sector investment is fundamental to driving industrial growth, diversification, and improved productivity through the adoption and utilisation of modern technologies. This requires huge investments in infrastructure, skills, and efficient knowledge systems,” Hlophe added.

The survey, whose findings were recently presented at the Joint Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI) Meeting on STISA 2024 and the African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (ASTII) Initiative Continental Validation Workshop in Namibia, was conducted under the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)-ASTII programme. SEPARC conducted the survey in collaboration with the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology as well as the Royal Science and Technology Park.

The ASTII initiative is focused on developing science, technology and innovation (STI) indicators in Africa through collecting statistical data on research and development, and innovation. It is also aimed at improving the capacity of African Union member states to collect data and use the evidence to enhance the quality of their STI policies.

During the workshop countries such as Egypt, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Uganda – which have sustained the ASTII process the longest – shared their experiences and best practices. Worth noting from their presentations was the importance of a robust mechanism, institutional frameworks and institutionalisation of STI measurement processes. Research and development data was presented by 25 countries, Swaziland being represented by SEPARC.

The meeting further discussed that more needed to be done in the collection of innovation data, including the measurement of innovation activities in the informal and government sectors. In dealing with issues of sustaining STI measurement in member states, it was emphasised that countries need to develop and strengthen their national systems of STI data collection and analysis.