By Tengetile Hlophe

During the official opening of the 11th Parliament, His Majesty King Mswati III emphasised the importance for Emaswati to start their own businesses and engage in research and development to identify new opportunities for growth.

His Majesty made clear the need for an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to Eswatini’s development, pointing out that innovation should be a core pillar of the country’s growth and fabric of every sector of the economy.

However, Chief of Staff and Special Advisor on Industrialisation at the African Development Bank, Professor Banji Oyelaran-Oyeyinka argues that most African countries have established science, technology, and innovation (STI) institutions isolated from their entire economic systems and research institutions insulated from industry. This goes against the supposedly highly systemic nature of innovation and is in the process killing the growth of most countries’ innovation systems.

According to the latest research and experimental development (R&D) and innovation surveys (2017) of Eswatini, this is also true for the country. The results of the surveys show that there are limited interactions between industry and R&D institutions in the Kingdom. Moreover, in the limited cases that Eswatini’s industries engage in R&D, they prefer to partner with research institutions outside the country.

Considering that the use and diffusion of innovation through the socio-economic system is a complex thing to quantify, governments all over the world are putting together mechanisms to track investments in science, technology, and innovation. The purpose of these investments is to evaluate the effectiveness of public policies in creating a conducive environment for innovation.

Studies have shown that innovation is cumulative and largely systematic. It is dependent on policy directions and their long run effect on the economy. Thus, innovation measurement and monitoring provides opportunities for policy learning that could result in continuous transformation. Surveys on innovation and R&D are not only feasible but when done right yield invaluable results that can help the country understand its innovation policy landscape and the outcomes of innovative entrepreneurship.

Making strategic choices

Statistical measurements are an important component of policy analysis and implementation. The surveys enable the computation of statistical measures or indicators, which in turn, enable the exploration of different interventions and means for achieving development. For countries to make bold and strategic choices, they should be informed by concrete evidence based policies, which the national research and development, and innovation surveys seek to produce.

Generally, the surveys ensure that policies are informed by scientific research conducted at country level, thus facilitating the development of home-grown solutions as opposed to adopting recommendations made at an African regional level, which may lack the local context. They also allow for the development of learning processes which enable countries to establish appropriate institutions and competences needed to drive development.

Provided that data is used by policymakers and decision makers, it ensures equitable distribution of benefits throughout the economy and that government driven initiatives benefit domestic firms, lead to growth of local industries, and improve the general social and economic welfare of all emaSwati.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) points out that well-designed “context specific” policies seek to build on the opportunities for development based on the economic and social realities in a country. For example, while foreign direct investment (FDI) is one of the major strategies for revenue creation in the country, an ESEPARC study on mapping the national system of innovation in Eswatini and another study investigating the skills gap between industry and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions point out that there is a lack of technicians to operate highly sophisticated technological equipment and machinery in the Kingdom.

What it means is that without tracking the level of innovation and R&D taking place within the Eswatini economy, in the long term such a policy option may not derive the required benefit if the country fails to create and sustain high level technical skills locally.

Regulation, procurement policy, taxes, and incentives all impact the process of firm innovation at different stages of development and in different ways. In the 2017 surveys, it came out strongly that while some firms are innovative, the limitations of policy and inflexible regulation are barriers to advancements in current innovation. In public institutions there was also an outcry for government procurement procedures as a huge barrier to timely procurement of equipment and machinery for conducting research.

Measurement for development

Nonetheless, measuring innovation and investments in the science system is driven by specific questions about the performance of the country’s national system. Where is the investment going? Who is it benefiting? How can we best support industrial development? What are the barriers to innovation? What drives innovation? What models work best? Answering these questions requires data, and there is no better way than using local data.

Mario Pianta and Giorgio Sirilli, from the Institute for Economic Research on Firms and Growth in Rome, argue that it is difficult to come up with accurate and satisfactory figures for this measurement. Therefore, developing strong country specific indicators is important. Measures of innovation should be used in tandem with in-depth analysis of economic and institutional environments to further provide answers to policy questions, such as, understanding innovation in the informal sector.

An ESEPARC study on the perspective of innovation in Eswatini shows that while innovative potential exists in the indigenous sector, policy support needs to go beyond generic statements of development to target certain sectors of the economy, create efficient beneficiation models and opportunities for entrepreneurial growth.

There is a need to break the syndrome for developing countries to create what the OECD refers to as “islands of excellence” which coexist with a group of weak performing firms or institutions and a substantial informal economy to identify opportunities in the innovation process for collective effort, complementarity and collaboration. Both public, private, and non-governmental sectors should recognise the importance of evidence based recommendations in informing policy and the overall policy process.

In measuring and monitoring innovative activity in the country, the ultimate goal is to find interacting and interdependent policies that lead to the achievement of the intended national development goals. For every investment, it is important that overall success is achieved, especially in a resource strapped economy. Strategic goal-posting and shifting should be evidence based and driven by innovative policy solutions.

When the Ministry of Information Communication and Technology (ICT), in partnership with ESEPARC and the Royal Science and Technology Park (RSTP), knock on your door with numerous questionnaires, please do take the time to add to Eswatini’s stock of local knowledge. In doing so, you are contributing to locally driven development!