How to redefine innovation & development: an African perspective

This guest post is by Gillian M. Marcelle, STI policy and management scholar, writing in a personal capacity.

Too often public policy debates on global issues get framed and defined in the global North, and the rest of the world is expected to fall in line and follow suit.

In July 2014, the African Union announced a new strategy for promoting science, technology and innovation STI in the African region (PDF). The announcement was celebrated in the region, but met with a lukewarm response from Northern partners and commentators. The contrast has led scholars active in policy analysis and advice to initiate a series of interventions that are aimed at fostering dialogue about the new strategy, so that its aims can be achieved.

The strategy, STISA 2024, is by no means perfect. It falls into a trap of developing a science strategy and hoping that innovation will somehow miraculously appear. It also does not take sufficient account of Africans in the Diaspora as a source of technological capabilities and knowledge.

However, there is room – no, an imperative – for constructive engagement, which must avoid the patronising tone of extra-regional partners.

African policy makers deserve and require encouragement and active engagement. Through executing this strategy, the African Union and its agencies will hopefully raise its own understanding of science, technology and innovation and trust their instincts, while taking the perspectives of non-state actors seriously.

This is not easy for governments around the world – to play a role of facilitator rather than controller in the centre stage – but it is necessary. There are several Africa-based public organisations and initiatives, including the African Observatory on Science, Technology and Innovation, NEPAD’s African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (ASTII) programme, ACTS, and national bodies, including the South African Human Sciences Research Council, that have the competence and interest to undertake research, awareness raising and programme execution activities in support of the strategy.

Innovation through a different lens

This position of constructive engagement with policy makers is necessary because there is no doubt that science, technology and innovation have the potential to make a significant contribution to Africa’s socio-economic development objectives. Therefore, the strategy has a good intent. The strategy also builds on and acknowledges the history of science and technology in Africa, which is part of a global history of knowledge.

However, in my view, STISA 2024 is valuable because it can become a fulcrum around which we create a knowledge and action programme that includes efforts to redefine innovation through a lens that is more relevant to Africa’s realities and aspirations.

That knowledge programme should open up and reimagine definitions of science, technology and innovation so that these include problem solving, local knowledge, the spiritual dimension as a source of inspiration, and more traditional ways of doing. It will also be much more important for an African-relevant strategy to accord value to imagination and wisdom, and to acknowledge that innovation always involves processes of learning and capability development. This is an opportunity to throw out some of the biases that preoccupy us in the innovation domain, where novelty is considered to be more important than value, or even meaning.

What is innovation for?

We have arrived at a place, time and space where to produce goods and services that are beneficial are thought to be second best options. The holy grail of innovation effort is thought to be radical, disruptive, technologically-intensive breakthroughs. This is not only disingenuous, because it does not even describe or analyse reality in the global North, but it perpetuates a sense of the majority world catching up with an impossible standard.

Recently, Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz drew attention to the importance of learning in his new book; this comes after many decades and solid research, particularly from Latin American colleagues on these issues. However, given the distortions in global knowledge production across the global North and South, this may well provide the visible push required to take the issue of redefining and reimagining science, technology and innovation. In my view, this is required if Science, Technology & Innovation (STI) is to deliver its maximum potential contribution to socio-economic development in the global South.

Innovation should be directed at the problems of providing widespread energy, improving access to water and sanitation, affordable housing, quality health care, environmental degradation, mitigation and adaptation to climate change including through fostering resilience, and other developmental objectives. Some of this will require technological breakthroughs, but much of it will require acquiring knowledge and applying knowledge from multiple sources and combining them in ways that actually bring about changes and improvements. It will be contextually sensitive and informed by political and structural realities.

In addition to asking deeper questions about the scope of the process of innovation, it is also important to probe the purposes and intended outcomes of these efforts and to examine ways in which, left to their own devices, investments in science, technology and innovation can reinforce and even worsen existing inequities in society and not lead to regenerative justice.

A group of scholars recently convened at MIT, hosted by the science, technology and society program, for a workshop entitled “What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa?” convened by Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga. Such questions and the insights emanating from that group will be informative and insightful

Questioning myths

It will be a vital part of that awareness raising-project to question conventional wisdom and debunk myths. For example, in some narratives of African innovation efforts in the last twenty years, it is convenient to leave out the uncontested success stories of MTN, Telecel, Econet and Celtel – African private sector companies that built massive business enterprises in an intensively technological field. Scholars (who should know better) attempt to rewrite the story of M-Pesa as a Vodafone and DFID success story, without acknowledging that one of the fundamental organisational and technological inputs for its success arose out of the developments of prepaid business models in the mobile phone industry, pioneered in South Africa as early as 1993.

In countless innovation for and from the grassroots, there is hand wringing about whether mobiles are actually making a difference on the African continent – yet in these discussions, the role of the producers, systems integrators, and technical intermediaries are almost completely left out of the frame. One perhaps needs to ask why? One part of this is that the sources of knowledge on Africa’s own science, technology and innovation experience are often ignored; and scholarship and policy material originating from within the continent is not cited. It is also true that perhaps there has not been enough emphasis on telling Africa’s story from its own perspectives.

At a recent debate on STISA organised by the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) at the HSRC, many of the features of this engagement were on display.

The timing of the seminar reinforced key messages about the importance of countries in the global South providing funding so that they can generate independent, high quality policy relevant research that is not too constrained by the requirements of donors and development partners. South Africa, through the Department of Science and Technology and bilateral funding, is committed to playing a role in developing African perspectives on these issues.

What might a future research programme look like?

A research programme arising out of STISA can usefully investigate:

  • Modes and models of science, technology and innovation in and from Africa, at national, subnational, sectoral and community level.
  • Conditions under which learning and capability have led to innovation outcomes that are beneficial and pro-developmental.
  • Innovation processes in settings that are non-formal, including peri-urban and rural settings, and for which the role of scientific technological knowledge is not central.
  • Barriers to knowledge flows among various entities in the innovation ecosystem and strategies for facilitating improved interaction.
  • Creating platforms for Africans to tell their stories and think about their policy implications.
  • Assessing the opportunity cost associated with narrowly defining science, technology and innovation so that it leaves out ways of doing and knowing that derive from an African epistemology.
  • Translation and communication strategies necessary to educate policy makers about unconventional approaches to science, technology and innovation that do not take OECD, European and other standards as their starting points.
  • Accelerating efforts to challenge distortions in global scientific production that omit and prejudice knowledge from the global South.



About the author

Gillian Marcelle is a senior executive, economic development policy advisor and scholar with more than twenty years’ global experience. She trained as an economist at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and the Kiel Institute of World Economics, Germany, earned an MBA at George Washington University and read for her doctorate in Science and Technology Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at Sussex University. She is currently the Executive Director of the University of the Virgin Islands, Research and Technology Park, an innovation agency that is a partnership between government, academia and the private sector. Prior to this appointment, she served as the head of the Centre for Science Technology and Innovation Indicators (CESTII), a specialist research center in the STI domain, and has also held an appointment as a Visiting Research Scholar at the Tata Centre for Technology and Design at MIT, where she continues to have research affiliations, including with the renowned Science, Technology Policy (STP) Program. From 2008-20014, she was a tenured associate professor at Wits University, where she designed and delivered a postgraduate programme in innovation management and policy. Her professional experience also includes equity and capital markets experience with JP Morgan Chase and program development within the World Bank group, as well as leading a policy advisory practice with clients including multilateral organisations, cities, several developing country governments and private sector companies in technology intensive sectors.

You can contact Gillian Marcelle at gmarcelle [at]


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