Perspectives from Around the World

South Africa Moves to a Knowledge Economy

South African Ambassador to Japan

The first thing that comes to mind for many people when thinking about South Africa is the great wine, gold, platinum, diamonds and world icon Nelson Mandela. Very few think of South Africa as an innovating country in science and technology.

South Africa houses some of the most innovative minds in the world. In fact one could say innovation comes naturally to many South Africans. In the next ten years, South Africa is working to transform its economy from a natural resource driven economy to a knowledge economy. There is a deep recognition that science and technology is a crucial driver of change in South Africa. The momentum for change, with science and technology as a leading component, is not only sustainable, it is accelerating and an important catalyst for taking South Africa to its goal of a knowledge economy.

Climate change is placing the continent of Africa under ever-increasing pressure. In addition, the continent is experiencing rapid urbanisation and has no fewer than six of the world's ten fastest growing economies. To help alleviate some of this pressure on the continent and to address the issue of sustainable development, South Africa's science and technology national strategy has set out specific objectives. It acknowledges that South Africa needs to ensure a green economy supported by practical, tangible initiatives to shift towards a resource efficient, low-carbon and pro-employment growth path. The transition to a resilient, low-carbon economy features strongly in our National Development Plan.

There are challenges in pursuing this goal. Climate change is a global problem requiring a global solution, and given the present realities of international climate change policy, it will be immensely challenging to the commitment set out in our Vision 2030 to reduce our emissions without compromising other key objectives such as creating jobs, addressing poverty and growing an internationally competitive economy. In other words, we will need to balance economic growth and urbanization ambitions with environmental sustainability. The transition to a green economy will require the development of new and innovative policy approaches--approaches that will give us much-needed flexibility in the short to medium term, whilst constantly keeping our eyes on our long-term carbon emissions goal.

What signs can one show to see the possibility of South Africa becoming an innovation hub for the African continent and beyond?

Where would you expect to find the inventor of the computed axial tomography scan (CAT) scan, the makers of the "speed gun" used in cricket ovals the world over, or the world's first oil-from-coal refinery? (Note 1)

The CAT scan was developed by South African physicist Allan Cormack and Godfrey Hounsfield of EMI Laboratories. Their achievement secured them the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Sasol is the world's first--and largest--oil-from-coal refinery. It is situated in Sasolburg in South Africa and provides 40% of the country's fuel. The world's first heart transplant was performed by Dr. Chris Barnard in Cape Town on 3 December, 1967.

Pratley's famous glue is the only South African invention that has been to the moon. In 1969 the putty was used to hold bits of the Apollo XI mission's Eagle landing craft together.

South Africa hosts and runs "Africa's giant eye," the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest and most powerful optical/infrared telescope in the southern hemisphere, capable of seeing objects a billion times too faint to be seen with the naked eye.

The range of projects in science and technology is impressive and wide-ranging: biotechnology, information technology, technology for manufacturing, natural resource technology, and technology for poverty reduction to name a few.

South Africa is blessed with an abundant resource of titanium, an important ingredient in the manufacture of the plates in fuel cells. Through the Titanium Centre of Competence, a number of partners are developing a range of technologies that will act as building blocks towards the establishment of a viable titanium industry in South African, including the production of titanium in metal powder form, a novel technology developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Further downstream technology development activities in this field include new hybrid materials, using titanium, for the aerospace and defence industries. Early last year South Africa launched the titanium additive manufacturing project, started Phase 2 of the Aerosud Innovation Centre, and with our growing capabilities in areas such as high-speed titanium machining, our country will be able to produce high value components for global aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus. We are rapidly advancing towards our objective of having, by the year 2020, a highly competitive new industry built around titanium, translating into thousands of job opportunities.

Time Magazine has listed the Digital Drum, which is a CSIR and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) co-creation, one of the 50 top inventions of 2011. The Digital Drum is two computer work stations housed adjacent to one another in an oil drum kiosk. It is designed to give people access to relevant information on various topics including health and education. The concept is taken from the CSIR's Digital Doorway, an initiative funded by the South African government. It is a robust standalone computer system aimed at promoting self-learning in computer literacy.

The African Network awarded the CSIR's nanomedicine research programme for Drugs and Diagnostics Innovation. This programme focuses on using nanotechnology for the repackaging of already existing medicines for poverty-related diseases such as tuberculosis, in order to increase effectiveness of these medicines.

South Africa's researchers have developed a new freshwater ecosystem water atlas, showing which rivers and wetlands need to be kept in their natural condition. The atlas content summarises the data and on-the ground knowledge of the freshwater ecological community in South Africa, representing over 1,000 person years of collective experience.

Knowledge-intensive economies are connected through growing international research and cooperation networks. We seek to strengthen our international partnerships--both to enhance our own pursuit of new knowledge and to create an environment conducive to the transfer of technology.

Japan remains South Africa's most important commercial partner in Asia. Relations between the two countries have been strengthened through a variety of educational, cultural and industrial exchange programs. For our part in the science and technology sector our aim in these exchanges has been to refocus investment in South African research and development away from the past and towards the future.

In the past the three main science and technology missions were self-sufficiency in defence, mining (and its related downstream industries), and agriculture. Now our focus is on new industries and new technologies. We have chosen a number of priority areas for research and development biotechnology, information technology, manufacturing technology, renewable energy, and space science and astronomy.

In deciding on these innovation areas we learned important lessons from Japan. Japan was once a late-comer country and spent many years playing catch-up with the United States. And Japan was successful. It learned from the United States about what made a national innovation system strong. Japan learned that what made a national innovation system strong was attention to three important areas:
1. a strong annual growth in funding basic research;
2. a strong university-industry partnership, and;
3. a strong protection of intellectual property rights, especially in risky frontier fields.

We have followed suit. South African funding of basic research has risen sharply over the past decade. Our universities are no longer ivory towers remote from industry and community. We have recently established an agency to protect and promote university intellectual property. We have a lot to learn from Japan as far as university-industry collaboration is concerned. South African universities and government have been slow to promote spin-off companies, technology transfer contracts and patents.

We are proud of our scientists, but we have been slow to promote and commercialize the intellectual property they produce. As with many developing countries, South Africa faces the challenge of expanding critical skills and grappling with the competition for skills that we all face.

In South Africa, we have made human resource development particularly in science and technology a high priority--growing enrollment and graduation of postgraduates, growing enrollment of international students, and growing employment for permanent researchers at higher education institutions. Both South Africa and Japan regard science and technology as fundamental to solving the difficult questions to do with economic growth, climate change and food security.

By international standards, South Africa's budding biotechnology industry is small. But a national audit has found that the industry has "enormous potential" for growth and investment.

South Africa has many pockets of world-class expertise and excellence across the life-science and biotechnology spectrum. We also have many potential and established bio-entrepreneurs, but we need to work on improving the environment in which they work so that they can flourish. One of the challenges here is funding, because entrepreneurs can only be successful if they are able to raise significant financial resources for their ideas.

Acknowledging this, the Technology Innovation Agency supports early stage or higher risk entrepreneurial development and innovation.

We are currently in the final stages of our work on the Bioeconomy Strategy, which aims to help develop a vibrant and rapidly maturing innovation system. There will be mechanisms to guide, support and mentor bio-entrepreneurs.

There are many people who question whether we as a country should be investing in a high risk, long-term sector such as biotechnology. The short answer is of course, yes. The opportunities are enormous, and the needs are great. We must not be left behind.

Major breakthroughs have been accomplished this year alone in health biotechnology and specifically in malaria drug development and understanding antibody activities against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In the area of agribiotech, South Africa was one of the first developing countries to commercially approve transgenic crops. Today, South African farmers have responded to the new technology as demonstrated by the rapid adoption rates of crops such as cotton, maize and soybeans.

There is extensive biotech research and experimental development that is taking place at our research and higher education institutions. The key to unlocking the value that lies in South Africa's biotechnology is in the hands of the bio-entrepreneurs.

An audit, funded by governments department of science and technology and the Egoli BIO Life Sciences Incubator, indicates that South Africa has a "pipeline of potential new products and processes in the research and development stage".

It identifies 106 companies participating in biotechnology activities, 47 of which are classified as "core" biotechnology companies solely involved in biotech enterprises.

The fact that there are already 47 biotech companies that have established themselves with very little funding gives South Africa the basis on which to build a much bigger industry.

One successful biotech venture is Cape Town-based Synexa Life Sciences. The company specializes in the production of complex "molecular tools that help elucidate the cellular mechanisms that cause disease, enabling the development of new therapeutics."

Our research in science and technology for sustainable development looks at traditional medicine research, mosquito-repellent candles (based on an indigenous plant used by traditional healers), HIV vaccine research, and agricultural research--including rural business initiatives like beekeeping technologies and essential oils processing.

In 2003 the African Laser Centre (ALC) was established in Pretoria, bringing together scientists from Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Ghana, acting as a catalyst for the transfer of laser technologies into Africa.

Laser technology affects a number of fields relevant to Africans: cataract surgery, glaucoma and cancer treatment, and the detection of tuberculosis (TB). Lasers also monitor plant stress levels, an important factor in improving crop harvests and pollutants.

The biggest achievement in 2012 was South Africa being awarded the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). It is a radio telescope, a very special and sensitive radio telescope, far more sensitive than anything that exists anywhere in the world today. Astronomers explore the universe by passively detecting electromagnetic radiation emitted by celestial objects. The SKA will enable them to do this far more effectively than ever before. This wonderful instrument, the SKA, will help astronomers and astro-physicians to find answers to a range of fundamental questions about the universe. Astronomers will be able to study the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and quasars--untroubled by dust. They will be able to study the evolution of galaxies and find out unique information about dark matter. And astronomers will be able to look for alien intelligence, targeting many stars simultaneously.

The SKA is a game-changer for Africa, bringing about a science Renaissance across the continent. While KAT-7--the seven prototype telescope dishes already in place on the Karoo site--is impressive, the sheer number of telescope dishes that will blossom across the Karoo from 2013 onwards will dwarf them.

Following the construction of 64 dishes that will make up the MeerKAT telescope, another 190 dishes will be added during phase 1 of the SKA from 2016 to 2019. By 2024 about 3,000 dishes will be spread across South Africa and its eight African partner countries, with about 2,000 of these at the core SKA site in the Karoo.

The core site will also host a large number of flat mid-frequency antennas, each about 60 m in diameter--the so-called "fish eye lenses" that will be used for full-sky surveys. The 64 MeerKAT dishes will form an integral part of SKA phase 1--further recognition of South Africa's excellence in designing and planning the MeerKAT project and the success of its KAT-7 precursor telescope.

During a recent visit to the Karoo site and the SKA office in Cape Town, a review panel consisting of top scientists from around the globe said that they were "blown away" by the excellent work of the South African MeerKAT team. The first MeerKAT dish--about 13.5 m diameter and with a novel "offset" design--will be installed by the end of 2013. The new dish design will allow the telescope to be even more sensitive. This project is giving effect to our dream that Africa must become a global science and technology destination and that cutting-edge science will be done in Africa by African scientists. Our SKA success is also reversing brain drain into brain gain by bringing top researchers to the continent to do cutting edge work on African soil.

The SKA is one of the great science projects of the 21st century and it's a project on which South African scientists collaborate with scientists from many other countries. Our South African bid team spent a good decade in a race to win the bid to host this wonderful instrument. We won the bid. It's a wonderful achievement. It will be a giant magnet for science in South Africa.

"Africa gave the world humanity, and that is no small thing." And now South Africa is poised to contribute in a meaningful way to the global effort to find solutions to some of the common challenges confronting humanity.

  1. ^ Mike Bruton, Great South African Inventions (Cambridge University Press) 2010

February 1, 2013

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