By Tengetile Hlophe and Thula Sizwe Dlamini

Around the world, proponents of the indigenous knowledge system (IKS) have argued that modernisation and development is responsible for the limited exploitation and commercialisation of traditional practices, expertise, and lifestyle.

Without reservation, they correctly argue that modernity has stigmatised IKS, which has led many communities to neglect erroneously their traditional way of life in favour of westernised modern living.

Confounding the situation is that most developing countries, Eswatini included, have failed dismally to fully master and use modernity to achieve social and economic development.

We cannot help but wonder whether Eswatini has also forgotten to apply its indigenous knowledge and skills in pursuit of the country’s developmental ambitions?

We are of an open mind that maybe Eswatini’s lacklustre economic recovery could be an opportunity for harnessing and commercialising indigenous knowledge and skills. This thought is hard to resist, especially if one considers the economic infrastructure that Eswatini has added since 1997 – the first year in which the National Development Strategy became operational.

The growing significance of indigenous knowledge

Whereas it is often difficult to trace and demonstrate the contribution of indigenous knowledge to modern science, its contribution to human development has been phenomenal.

Professor Jesse Popp points out that natives were first to discover the active ingredient in Aspirin: acetylsalicylic acid by using the bark of the willow tree to relieve pain. Others have shown that about 60% of anticancer and 75% of anti-infective drugs approved from 1981 to 2002 were traceable to natural medicine used by indigenous people.

In previous articles, we have argued that for Eswatini to turn the economy around, there is need to make targeted investments into research and development, particularly by harnessing indigenous knowledge to produce new goods and services.

How does Eswatini measure on the IK landscape?

In examining what could be classified under IK in Eswatini, an ESEPARC study entitled ‘An Historical Perspective of Innovation in Eswatini’ shows that emaSwati have innovated to adapt to the ever-evolving development landscape.

The study documents incremental improvement in innovation in the traditional sector (handicraft, traditional food and medicine) based on the needs of producers, changes in policy, and as a form of response to societal, technological and global change.

The study finds that producers have innovated when introducing new patterns, designs and colours to their craft. Moreover, emaSwati have introduced new methods of preparing traditional foods or making traditional medicines. Others have moved away from indigenous sources of fibre to incorporate plastics in response to the country’s evolving environmental legislation that encourages the protection of indigenous plants.

The downside has been limited formal education of producers in the sector, which has led to the low use of technology in production processes, which has hindered creativity or its implementation thereof. A majority of the study respondents were in possession of only high school (32.6%) and secondary level (28.7%) education. In such a set-up, innovation becomes limited to market innovations with very low product and process innovation. Indeed, as the study results show, only 18.6% of the producers actually engage in product and process innovation.

The sector is also characterised by inadequate access to good markets, a less transparent pricing system and limited producer information. There is also lack of support in as far as standards and quality assurance is concerned. Producers do not advertise their products and a majority of them are barely connected to manufacturers.

The study finds that the utilisation of traditional medicine as an alternative and complement to modern medicine has rendered IK a crucial source of economic activity and a source of growth in the rural sector. Other drivers include the increasing number of urban households that are incorporating indigenous vegetables in their diets as a healthier alternative, and the desire to produce indigenous products and services to supply the country’s budding tourism industry.

The study finds that knowledge transfer channels are simple (not trivial) but very effective. For instance, 40.1% of producers reported that they obtain the knowledge from family members; 21.7% from friends, neighbours and individuals in their communities; 13.2% were self-taught while 10.1% got it through formal training institutions – suggesting that a majority (or about 75.2%) of the knowledge that drives the traditional sector is easily transferable through social interaction, which illustrates that communities have more effective mechanisms for knowledge transfer and technology diffusion.

Innovation in IKS

In thinking about how Eswatini could use the traditional sector as a foundation for the country’s own modern industries, a point to consider is that IKS builds on generations of experience, existing capacities of communities and their innate production processes.

The ESEPARC study found that producers in the traditional sector, unlike in most sectors of the economy, already possess the basic skill and tacit (implicit) know-how for production; but lack access to new technology, knowledge, and advanced skills to help them innovate.

From the foregoing analysis, we postulate that the country could increase levels of innovation by providing new information, research and development, and the latest technologies to producers in the traditional sector. For instance, biotechnology presents opportunities to come up with new formulations of umhlabelo, or to increase the shelf life of inkhakha, or imbuya.

The point here is that it is possible to create uniquely pan-Eswatini manufacturing firms by incorporating the foundational aspects of traditional products for industrialisation in Eswatini. Similarly, opportunities are plentiful for local entrepreneurs who will bridge the knowledge gap between producers in the traditional sector and markets (by integrating ICTs), including helping them improve quality and adhere to generally approved standards and modern designs and developing new ones.

What can Eswatini do to improve the economic prospects of IKS?

A 2016 ESEPARC study found that the informal economy in Eswatini is worth a staggering E20.5 billion. Amongst this sector are those commercialising indigenous products such as weaved baskets, bottled jam, petroleum jelly, as well as traditional attire, medicines and brew.

Getting ahead for Eswatini calls for an improvement in the production factors for local producers especially those operating in the informal sector through what economists call combining informal (indigenous) manufacturing (including processing) with formal manufacturing.

Small tweaks such as an improvement in the provision of production technologies and infrastructure, improved accessibility to inputs and markets, organised marketing of products, and setting quality measures and standards for producers would go a long way in providing an enabling environment for the country to start commercialising its IKS. And in the process formalise some of the businesses operating in the informal sector.

We have already argued that knowledge is transferred easily intra and inter households and communities within the sector, which suggests that communities could be targeted as possible innovation hubs. Opportunities exist for creating community clusters where local producers will share production costs for the sector to contribute to industrial growth.

Eswatini would also have to address demand-side factors for products made from IK. This includes demonstrating the benefits of such products to consumers to increase their consumption and as such, their contribution to the total amount of goods and services produced in Eswatini at any given time, otherwise known as gross domestic product (GDP).

There is no doubt that Eswatini could anchor her “blue ocean” strategy (defined as the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low cost to open up a new market space and create new demand) on IKS.

While we are careful not to dictate how this could be done, there is no doubt that the triad of research and development, knowledge transfer, and producer and consumer education is key in turning the traditional sector into an important source of immediate and future growth in Eswatini.

Examples of operationalising this idea include supporting rural women who produce petroleum jelly from sisal with the scientific evidence of its benefits (if any), providing advertisements and standards, and sensitising the nation on the importance of buying this product. If successful, this could accelerate the large-scale commercialisation of their product and help in import substitution, job creation in rural areas and community development.

Policymakers are encouraged to take a long-term view as they ponder this and consider providing bold support to indigenous processes of innovation to harness the opportunities for learning and building capacities for technology adoption. This will encourage innovation among communities and sustain production processes, create new jobs, increase exports, and in the long-term lead to the emergence of products and services that are unique to Eswatini.