Improving Africa’s knowledge systems: six lessons from Covid-19

The Covid-19 situation is unprecedented and is reshaping various aspects of society, including the way we produce knowledge, share it and use it. In this blog post, Joanes Atela and Nora Ndege of the Africa Sustainability Hub reflect on lessons from diverse experiences across the African continent.

Knowledge systems (i.e. how we produce, disseminate and use knowledge) are critical for the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Firstly, the behaviour change expected to combat Covid-19 mainly relies on both formal and informal medical, social, and economic knowledge. And secondly, the pandemic is quickly reshaping how we think about our knowledge systems, as well as how we can repurpose our knowledge to be more adaptive towards unprecedented pandemics and other disasters.

In Africa, the pandemic has arrived at a time when the continent’s Member States are making efforts to build systems that promote science, technology & innovation (STI) in line with two agendas: the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this blog post, we want to highlight some lessons that Africa can learn from the COVID-19 experience in this context.

Evidence supporting these insights is drawn from the Knowledge Systems Innovation study funded by the UK’s Department of International Development through its East Africa Research Hub; the Tomorrow’s Cities Nairobi Risk Hub funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF); and the Africa Sustainability Hub funded through the ESRC STEPS Centre. The various thoughts were synthesised through a webinar session convened under the Africa Research and Impact Network (ARIN).

Lessons from Covid-19 for knowledge in Africa

1) Investments in knowledge/research are critical not only for development, but also for societal resilience

The production, dissemination and use of knowledge are critical for medical and behavioural responses to COVID-19 and other future challenges. The pandemic has raised the profile of research/knowledge management not just for ‘development’ agendas, but also in providing a safety net to society.

African countries have made some political compromises by loosening controls, where convenient, to refer to science and research in the control measures. And the increased appreciation of research/knowledge by decision makers (including Heads of States and Ministers) in the COVID-19 response demonstrates that an evidence-based approach to public policy and actions can be effective.

This has strengthened the case for investing more in adaptive research/knowledge systems. Currently, investments in research and development in Africa are about 0.6% of the global total of R&D investment, significantly lower than other regions – a statistic which may affect the continent’s preparedness for future challenges. More investment in adaptive knowledge/research (i.e. production, investment and dissemination that responds to emerging challenges and opportunities) could prepare the continent to better handle issues like post-COVID reconstruction, risk preparedness and further development. This calls for long-term pro-poor and disaster-proof development programmes to cushion the poor and safeguard existing development gains (especially those related to poverty alleviation). Such programmes should target investments not only in politically-visible physical infrastructure (for example super-highways and hospital facilities), but also in critically-needed knowledge, such as the skills and innovation required to effectively operate and manage these physical investments in ways that meet the needs of people, especially the poor.

2) We need people-centered knowledge/research for effective policy solutions aligned to Africa’s realities

The COVID-19 experience has shown the power of knowledge in the hands of people. People-centered knowledge requires that knowledge/research processes be informed by the people, their needs and realities.

The fight against the pandemic has been slowed down by lack of a clear understanding and data on local dynamics and the conditions under which culture shifts or behaviour changes can happen.  While data exists at higher levels, adopting this data to the local context rarely happens, especially for the urban and rural poor. This is because these local communities often have little say in defining and co-producing data/research and policies. This means that establishing community-driven data and knowledge systems and strengthened public engagement is necessary to inform context-specific and adaptive responses to disasters.

Policies informed by knowledge that is produced in this way are important pathways to spur much-needed impact in Africa. For example, the Made in Rwanda Policy promoted in Rwanda enables indigenous/local knowledge to inform the country’s knowledge base and development activities. The country has set up a research facility to codify the efficacy of local knowledge around medicinal plants, allowing its national health systems to draw from local information. While this is still evolving, and its effectiveness has not been fully documented, discussions with Rwanda’s stakeholders under the Knowledge Systems Innovation study indicate that this has enabled affordable and locally-grounded health solutions to be developed.

3) Africa needs stronger cross-sectoral knowledge interactions and partnerships

While Covid-19 remains a health issue, its impacts are multiple. In Africa specifically, it is estimated that lockdowns have threatened up to 150 million jobs. Food production and distribution chains have been disrupted, leading to food and nutrition insecurity for many Africans. The continent’s education and social networks are also breaking down very fast.

How can knowledge systems help? Managing the pandemic in an optimal way relies on a package of integrated/holistic knowledge drawn from various sectors, disseminated strategically.

Currently, most attention in African countries is given to how the health-related impacts of Covid-19 are disrupting formal and urban economies. While this is worthwhile, it risks overshadowing the disruptions to other sectors (for example, food distribution chains) with potential long-term implications for social systems and livelihoods. There is a need for frameworks that enable cross-disciplinary/cross-sectoral partnerships and co-production of knowledge to create spaces for knowledge interactions, to address these other questions.

4) Linking research to pro-poor innovation is a promising path to research/knowledge impact

The COVID-19 experience shows the need for strengthened linkages between research and innovation in Africa.

Existing research systems (for example, medical research centres and Centers for Disease Control) have generated a great deal of information on responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, for example on the protective equipment and behaviors that are needed. Informed by this evidence, many entrepreneurs, small businesses and community-based organizations have been innovating – producing preventive kits including face masks, ventilators, and hand-washing machines that are affordable for poor people. This has helped to limit the spread of the disease in poor areas.

New livelihood opportunities and capabilities have also emerged from such innovations. Some of the specific examples of the COVID-19 related innovations in Africa were showcased during a virtual session of African innovators in the face of Covid-19 organized by WHO on 20 May 2020. These included creative solutions from Ghana on developing a three-wheeled medical ambulance to supply medical needs in hard-to-access rural communities; response kits developed in other African countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Guinea and elsewhere; and attempts to develop indigenous cures, such as an organic tonic, in Madagascar and other African countries.

This suggests that there is a great deal of innovation happening already in different parts of Africa. But for this innovation to flourish, it needs national policy and regulatory frameworks that boost domestic innovation capacity and allow emerging innovations to be marketed in the longer term.

5) Rethinking pathways to knowledge communication and dissemination is key to behaviour change and innovation

The COVID-19 has triggered new thinking on how we package and communicate knowledge/research to make it publicly useful. Experience shows that embracing a diversity of communication pathways is likely to promote the public utility of research/knowledge.

The use of online engagement platforms, the arts, social media and mainstream media, community-based champions and impact networks can be powerful options for conveying knowledge. Such communications have triggered innovation and entrepreneurship in different African settings, where people have begun developing locally-driven solutions, including local knowledge dialogues on behaviour change.

However, some of these communication processes and technologies might exclude certain segments of society (for example, rural farmers).  Methodologies that account for the differentiated segments of society could help, and are needed to strengthen communications across different social groups. In a broader sense, strengthening the linkages between technical and social innovations in Africa is key.

6) Africa’s informal knowledge systems are a promising fringe for the continent’s pro-poor development and resilience

COVID-19 has triggered a fresh awareness of indigenous knowledge systems in various African countries. Attempts to develop indigenous cures, such as an organic tonic being promoted by some in Madagascar, show a continued interest in using informal knowledge for societal benefits. The tonic herb touted as a ‘cure’ by the Madagascan President has, however, been met with scepticism from elsewhere for a number of reasons, including lack of approval by global food/drugs licensing and regulatory regimes.

Other African countries, including Rwanda, Senegal and Kenya, are also developing response kits through local knowledge and innovations. The experiences – though not formally approved by international standards – are an indication of the huge underlying potential of Africa’s informal knowledge.

Conclusions: Covid-19, knowledge and innovation in Africa

Knowledge systems and the Science, Technology & Innovation (STI) arena are a key part of enhancing development and resilience to shocks in many ways. The response to Covid-19 in Africa has shown how they are working in some areas, but also where they could be improved.

The need to embrace people-driven knowledge, multisectoral and interdisciplinary knowledge partnerships and application of research to promote innovations are essential, not just in pursuing development, but also as a safety net for the continent’s gains and contributions to the global Sustainable Development Goals.

From the Covid-19 experience, it is important to note that investments in research and knowledge systems are not just important for onward future development efforts, but also in safeguarding the progress on development that has been made so far. To make these investments work for Africa, we need to work towards more adaptive and multifaceted knowledge systems that can better cope with unexpected circumstances, like pandemics, that require rapid social and technical innovation.

Further global commentary on Covid-19

Coronavirus, crisis and the real Argentine economy: post-pandemic challenges Anabel Marin

Food in the time of Covid-19: how can local action and national coordination work together? Adrian Ely

Covid-19, science and governance: lessons from India Dinesh Abrol

For more on this topic, see our growing resource on coronavirus and lessons from STEPS work on epidemics and pandemics.

Browse the resources

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