Science and technology for development: Created and directed as part and parcel of enlightened and effective governance, national scientific and technological capacities generally determine the extent to which countries can transform their natural resources into industrial and economic assets and modernize their rural landscapes. Additionally, science and technology (S&T) provides the indispensable tools for harnessing rural sector resources, such as arable land, mineral deposits, or forest ecosystem services, to drive economic growth, build the foundation for wealth creation, and deliver social services nation-wide, especially for the village population. Although some countries (e.g. Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa) are making uneven progress in that respect, Africa on the whole is still far from a breakthrough in successfully converting its abundant natural resources (potential wealth) into real and tangible wealth translating into rising GDP growth figures, income per capita, industrialization rate or declining poverty measures. But why is that not happening? The reason for this “paradox of impoverishing natural resource abundance” is that Africa’s overall development challenges can easily be equated to capacity deficits in science and technology development and organizational applications. These deficits are reflected in the continent’s limited indigenous generation of S&T capabilities or appropriation and adaptation of imported technologies to accelerate the transformation of its natural resources concentrated in the rural sector. Yet the instrumental role of S&T in the development of nations is universally acknowledged and can hardly be over-emphasized since it is S&T capabilities that propelled all the advanced industrialized countries into their present orbit. That S&T capacities determine wealth creation is evident also in the huge income disparities between the developing and advanced economies of the globe. These disparities simply reflect a correspondingly wide divide, in S&T instrumentation, between the two groups of countries. Ranking countries by GDP performance, industrial growth rate, income per capita or human development index, is basically the same as ranking their S&T capabilities to find solutions to development problems, or to produce and trade goods and services efficiently on the global stage. For example, Africa’s current world share of S&T output (R&D) of barely 1 per cent correlates with its 1 per cent share of world industrial output and of world merchandise trade, a statistic that has remained worrisomely constant over several decades. Countries cannot sell what they do not produce. Could the problem be lack of awareness of the role of S&T in the building of nations and prosperity? If so, it would be worthwhile to rewind the present discussion to S&T primary basics.
S&T basics: Science is just another name for knowledge (derived from its Latin root “scientia”) comprising engineering and social sciences as well as the humanities. Scientific research denotes the ability to find solutions to problems of all kinds – natural, biological, social or cultural – using theoretical and experimental as well as intuitive and analytic processes. Research and Development (R&D) means a scientific advance or innovation achieved in a particular area of work, or simply the development of a new product or process. R&D thus combines the research (basic and applied) process and its result, such as an invention, pre-industrial model, prototype, or new way of doing things. According to UNESCO, R&D is any creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications. Technology is defined as the application of knowledge and more generally as the skills, experience and devices used by people to improve their lives and surroundings. As can be inferred from the foregoing definitions, S&T permeates and influences all development sectors and factors, so much so that social and economic development is basically synonymous with S&T capacity building. Creating and deploying S&T capacities require more than simply establishing a Ministry of Science and Technology. A national S&T system is fundamental.
National S&T system: There must be a clear political vision and strong political will to build a goal-driven national S&T system in the context of a society and institutions imbued with the values of probity, integrity, and objectivity. At a minimum, a national S&T system would include: the executive and legislative branches of government; the civil service; educational and research institutions cross-pollinating with the productive sectors, especially the end-users in the agricultural, industrial and service sectors all inclusive of foreign investments; professional associations; the media and civil society. A national S&T capacity thus encompasses the plural contributions of all the above stakeholders interacting and vibrating towards well defined and dated strategic goals, examples being: a green revolution or single crop “miracle” such as Côte d’Ivoire’s world dominance in cocoa production; a nation-wide and all-season rural road network; doubling per capita income or GDP growth rate; or attaining the key United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This is roughly the S&T capacity development trajectory followed by some emerging countries such as China, South Korea, or India. However, some observations would be in order. Firstly, it is not enough to train numerous high-level scientists and engineers for a country to acquire S&T capacity. A critical mass of intermediate professional skills or skilled workforce of technicians is equally important because it is an attractive asset for foreign direct investments. Secondly, the development of human S&T resources should include solid grounding in entrepreneurship so that S&T graduates can create corporate bodies such as companies and professional associations dedicated to the transformation of Africa’s natural resources. Having many engineers is a good starting point but it is better still to have many small and medium-size engineering companies and enterprises operating within interlocking value chains and supply networks at national and international levels. Thirdly, the national S&T system should aim to redress the double jeopardy currently suffered by African countries in the global trading system, namely (a) by exporting predominantly unprocessed and low-priced commodities to other countries, Africa exports to destination countries the skilled jobs it needs at home, and (b) Africa uses its limited foreign reserves to import high-priced finished goods manufactured from its exported commodities. Finally, S&T capacity building should aim at first-grade quality in terms of facilities, equipment, working conditions, and motivating remuneration. It should also start from primary and secondary schools in order to promote scientific/digital literacy or “scientific minds” and demystify the seeming intimidating complexity of the subject, especially in our villages.
S&T applications to rural development: If, as observed above, S&T capacities are at present limited at national level in much of the continent, they are even more so in the rural context where they are most needed to transform and harness primary sector resources in order to feed the industrial and tertiary economic sectors in the cities. The prime areas of interest where the full breadth of S&T can be applied to rural development include researching, testing and applying innovative and cost-effective solutions to: building all-season rural road networks; village housing innovations using local materials; renewable and low-carbon energy systems to replace wood fuel now widely used in the villages; water supply and sanitation systems; community value structures of social and economic inclusion and solidarity; converting village traditional knowledge systems and practices into modern economic assets ; and lastly, applying S&T innovations to considerably ramp up the productivity of our rural agriculture by breeding and disseminating appropriate seeds certified for high yield, nutritional value, market appeal, and climate resilience. Related applications include local production of environmentally-friendly substitutes for imported synthetic farm inputs, and designing/manufacturing farm tools most appropriate to the needs and possibilities of Africa’s village smallholders who neither need nor can afford 100 horse-power tractors or complex irrigation systems.
From hoes to drones? One area of S&T that deserves emphasis in relation to agriculture and rural development in general is Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), often referred to as E-Agriculture and increasingly as Agri-Technologies. Can Africa’s village smallholder participate productively in this new digital age by leapfrogging from the use of a hoe to the use of a drone to plant seeds and perform other farm tasks? Indeed, digital applications to agriculture offer the tantalizing promise of coupling two economic sectors of vital importance to Africa’s development, namely agriculture, which is the oldest economic profession since Neolithic times, and the digital economy, which is the newest technological leap in the advancement of nations. The importance of these two sectors to the economic prosperity of Cameroon for example was underlined by President Paul Biya in his message to the Cameroonian youth on Youth Day 2016, as follows: “The development of our agricultural sector will be accorded a prime place. In this regard, I urge you to truly revolutionize your mindset. The soil has never betrayed anyone. Do not be afraid to take the plunge and become the agricultural entrepreneurs that Cameroon needs. It is a noble and rewarding trade in the so-called real economy. In addition, there is another domain, the so-called "Android" generation which I know you hold most dear, namely the development of the digital economy. To each generation, its historic challenges for the nation’s future! I can say that one of the major challenges for our youths is to manage to keep abreast of the astounding phenomenon of the digital economy”.
The mutually reinforcing complementarities between the two sectors in question are obvious since village farmers and farmer organizations need digital services to modernize their profession and communities in many ways: reliable mobile communication with the outside world at affordable costs; digital libraries and Internet/distance learning opportunities; video-conferences (as less costly alternative to physical meetings) at different levels from village, regional, national to global level; basic electronic commerce solutions; professional and social networking; electronic money transfer services; weather forecasts; produce price information; epidemic alerts; entertainment services especially music, TV and movies; etc all of which can make the village a comfortable home and reduce the itch for city life. For now, however, these basic digital benefits, which are the badge of modernity, are mostly limited to the urban sector. The village farmer also wants to be part of the “Android Revolution”.