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Ugandan Innovators: Gathering the scattered and hidden ‘gold’

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Added 11th March 2019 08:57 PM

Uganda must encourage local innovators to develop capacity to harness the entire innovations value chain

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Uganda must encourage local innovators to develop capacity to harness the entire innovations value chain

By Maj. (Rtd) Fred Bwino Kyakulaga

I want to focus readers' attention on innovation in Uganda because I feel and believe that as individual Ugandans and as a nation at large that could be our niche.

As individuals we are obviously gifted differently yet as a nation we are jointly gifted and endowed abundantly for which we are rightly referred to as the Pearl of Africa. Indeed, Africa is “gifted by nature” as alluded to by Jared Diamond in 1999 in his book, “Guns, Germs and Steel”, although it is a paradox that a continent so rich in natural resources is the poorest continent on earth. Only by recognising the role which ourselves can play in exploiting these resources, can we begin to overcome this paradox. 

Much as we have all along been harnessing other natural resources, we have to consider ourselves as the greatest resource to harness. Yes, our capacity to use our brain power to solve our challenges – call it innovation is the most precious capability handed to Ugandans, like to the rest of mankind, by God. Precious stones are discovered, dug up and polished before being exploited, so should this “gold” – the innovators. 

I therefore, through this “missive” call upon us all to inspire, ignite and mobilise the scattered and hidden Ugandan “Gold” - the local innovators, for they could be a force to reckon with in boosting our economy.  I also write to stir the readers and awaken our innermost and entire being to blame ourselves only for taking the path of deception that “we Ugandans are poor and without resource”.  We have deceived ourselves too long!  I can only compare us to the “Seeker" depicted in the short story by Roger Darlington entitled SEEKER OF TRUTH which I share below;

After years of searching – for truth, the seeker was told to go to a cave, in which he would find a well. “Ask the well what is truth”, he was advised, “and the well will reveal it to you”. Having found the well, the seeker asked that most fundamental question. And from the depths came the answer, “Go to the village crossroad: there you shall find what you are seeking”.

Full of hope and anticipation the man ran to the crossroad to find only three rather uninteresting shops. One shop was selling pieces of metal, another sold wood, and thin wires were for sale in the third. Nothing and no one there seemed to have much to do with the revelation of truth.

Disappointed, the seeker returned to the well to demand an explanation, but he was told only, “You will understand in the future”. When the man protested, all he got in return were the echoes of his own shouts. Indignant for having been made a fool of - or so he thought at the time - the seeker continued his wanderings in search of truth. As years went by, the memory of his experience at the well gradually faded until one night, while he was walking in the moonlight, the sound of guitar music caught his attention. It was wonderful music and it was played with great mastery and inspiration.

Profoundly moved, the truth seeker felt drawn towards the player. He looked at the fingers dancing over the strings. He became aware of the guitar itself. And then suddenly he exploded in a cry of joyous recognition: the guitar was made out of wires and pieces of metal and wood just like those he had once seen in the three stores and had thought them to be without any particular significance.

At last the seeker understood the message of the well: we have already been given everything we need: our task is to assemble and use it in the appropriate way. Nothing is meaningful so long as we perceive only separate fragments. But as soon as the fragments come together into a synthesis, a new entity emerges, whose nature we could not have foreseen by considering the fragments alone, so is the scattered and hidden Ugandan innovation “gold”.

Let me attempt to piece together the separate fragments of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in Uganda into a synthesis in the hope that the reasons for the paradox of being abundantly endowed with natural resources yet we remain one of the poorest countries will be resolved. 

First of all, we ought to recognize and build on the contribution made by H.E President Museveni and the Government bodies so far. Vision 2040, the National Development Plans and NRM manifestos, term after term, have been emphatic on STI as a key driver of development across all sectors.

In his keynote address to NRM’s Central Executive Committee at their ongoing retreat at Chobe Safari Lodge, the President said that for NRM to propel the country forward and transform society, the leaders must appreciate the importance of STI to drive socio-economic transformation coupled with the NRM ideology that emphasizes Patriotism, Pan-Africanism, socio-economic transformation and democracy. 

To operationalize these plans, the Government and Parliament have promulgated some enabling policies and laws. However, where existing laws have not provided for desired interventions to kick-start the nascent STI sector, Government has invoked Presidential directives and other implementation instruments. Through this arrangement the Presidential initiative on Banana Industrial Development (PIBID), Kiira Motors Ltd, the Presidential initiative for Science and Technology Innovation and the Innovation Fund, among others, came into existence. 

Secondly, my personal projection about the future of Uganda’s innovation climate is that the initial focus should be on the 3 major contributors to our economy, namely; Agriculture, Services and Industry which contribute 71.9%, 23.7% and 4.4% respectively to Uganda's GDP if we are to create some impact in the medium term.  Emphasis should be proportionately distributed among these three areas. 

Thirdly, while maintaining the focus above, the two strategies of engaging in technology transfer/uptake from other countries and encouraging novel Ugandan innovations should be both explored. If we do that, I surely say to you, that every eye shall see and everybody will confess to the financial liberation accruing from the “melodies” of the Ugandan innovation “guitar”. 

Coming back to the strategy of adopting technologies from some successful nations like China, Japan, Germany, India, Brazil,  South Korea as well Indonesia and domesticating them to our needs should, this should be given priority because like the military people term dividends from such initiatives it will definitely be a force-multiplier. To this end, the government needs to carry out a needs assessment to identify the priority technology needs in the 3 sectors alluded to earlier,  identify potential technology sources, establish a one-stop-innovation-hub with the necessary capabilities and then embark on priority technology transfer. The hub would act as a workshop for customization of technologies transferred as well as for manufacturing prototypes whenever necessary. It would also serve as a platform to link technology users, researchers, scientists,  innovators,  investors, manufacturers and technocrats. 

There are success stories of this strategy out there. For instance, in a spell of only 40 years, China has catapulted itself to the second position in the world economy because it similarly encouraged massive technology transfer through favourable economic policies including creating free trade zones and providing cheap non-skilled labour. These policies encouraged flow of capital, Technology and skills into China from other countries. China has thus transformed into a trade powerhouse and the world's factory for textiles, clothing, toys, footwear, leather goods, bicycles, fans, fridges, microwave ovens, TV sets, consumer electronics, mobile phone handsets, furniture and travel goods.

However, it is unfortunate that only the thin-profit generating part of the value chain, i.e. assembling, has all along been allowed by the owners of the technologies to be done in China.  The other thick-profit generating activities like prototype development, parts production and sales are exclusively done by the owners of the technologies back home.  In this way, on average, out of the retail price of a product made in China through technology transfer, China takes a share of a miserable 35% mainly going to wages of non-skilled factory labourers while the remaining 65% goes to the owners of the technology. This situation necessitates recipients of technology transfer to juggle technology transfer and development of capacity for novel innovations to ensure future benefit of 100% of the entire value chain for some goods. China now has capacity to do this. For instance, it has recently come up with its own mobile phone chip, much to the jealousy of the US that had previously dominated that capacity.  The current USA-China trade war could be related to this new development in China.

From the above analysis, Uganda must encourage local innovators to develop capacity to harness the entire innovations value chain. We Ugandans, as factors in that equation of intellectual creation need to play our part unwaveringly on a daily basis if we are to become dominant or else we remain minor in the current global innovation shift. Almost on a daily basis a new kind of technology is being created or invented. Let us as Ugandans- policymakers, and other stakeholders in development be focused on this crucial area of novel  Innovations by bringing on board the people who are likely to reclaim our economic position. While government is concentrating on addressing strategic bottlenecks that have hindered economic development of Uganda, the rest of us should dig into novel innovations to further enrich the economic fabric that is already in place. Activation of novel innovators is important. However, identifying funding sources is even more crucial.  Besides Ugandan innovators can actually access the global value chain through a collective window if their intellectual property and works are protected. Equally important, the challenge, going forward, will be to match the Government policy commitments to STI with national financial resource allocations, currently standing at a miserable 0.3% of the total budget to at least 1%. Finally, creation of a platform for knowledge, exchange of ideas and visibility would also do much to lubricate the innovation wheel to ignite and stir the rest of Ugandans to appreciate the advantage of innovation individually and on a national level but also to access possible local, national, regional and global investors. 

As I conclude, it is important to note that the 2014 census projected that Uganda's population will reach 46.7 million by the year 2025. The population growth rate between 2015 and 2025 is expected to be 3.03%, again, one of the highest globally. Although a healthy growing population is commendable, such demographic trends where the population is becoming predominantly one of youths place significant pressure on limited resources. Such a rapidly growing population requires simultaneously expanding the economy to accommodate the people’s needs and adopting more sustainable practices in natural resource management. It is, therefore, absolutely critical for Uganda to turn to innovation and the creative use of resources across all sectors of the economy.

I am calling upon us all (the Executive, Legislature, Judiciary, Academia and the entire Ugandan population) to be players in propelling our economy with a keen eye placed upon Science, Technology and Innovation. With all that, Uganda will shine on the global scene with solid “gold” in one piece and it will illuminate the world with innovations for the 21 century.

Writer is the MP Kigulu North and the Chairperson Sessional Parliamentary Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation

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