China: An inspiration in building Africa’s R&D capacity

The social media (majorly WhatsApp and Facebook) largely sustained the relationship between I and my friend for almost a decade just when the phone calls became few and far between. However, one of his rare visits to Nigeria finally set the stage for an ‘offline meeting’ and the rendezvous was the capital city. As expected, there were a lot of catching up to do! He’s an engineer and ICT expert. Our wide-ranging exchanges among so many other things touched on disruptive innovations and emerging technologies.

China still holds his imagination captive having had the privilege of travelling extensively deep into the belly of the sprawling country. The country’s meteoric rise still marvels the world which makes the words of Napoleon rather prescient that “let China sleep, for when the dragon awakes, she will shake the world.”

Today’s China is the product of its fourth attempt at industrialization which started in the late 70’s with Deng Xiaoping as the impresario. Now the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, elaborate plans have since been laid and committedly pursued in becoming the hub for innovation through ramping up spending in Research and Development(R&D).

R&D is the key to the innovation door- providing untrammelled access to new knowledge, products and services which touches our modern lives and contributes to stable and continuous economic growth.

China’s global manufacturing puissance is not unassailable as many countries are evolving conditions to appeal to business investments while other are working to halt reshoring; ipso facto, the Chinese deem investments on innovation as a path to remain competitive and economically strong and stable. Edward Tse- asserted that “as the Chinese R&D becomes an ever-richer source of new practices and knowledge companies from around the world will draw upon talent and innovations being realized in China.”.

The world is on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution which will be dominated by Artificial Intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, internet of things, renewable energy, space travel etc thus countries like China are working frenetically towards that direction.

In its 14th five-year plan 2021-2025 it hopes to score an annual increase of more than 7 percent in it research and development spending according to official statistics. Reports have it that China’s R&D spending is second only to the U.S since 2013 having been investing more than 2percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to R&D. Not a few Chinese firms are setting aside huge funds to R&D in apparent lockstep with the plan.

Already, the Americans are launching a bipartisan 200 billion U.S dollars Innovation and competition Act. Sources like Wikipedia place the U.S as the country with the highest R&D expenditure with China following hot on its heels. However, forecast for 2021 puts China in the lead with spending exceeding 621 billion dollars against the U.S investment of 589.7 billion dollars.

R&D in many developing countries in Africa hasn’t taken root which may continue to put it at the backwaters just as other parts of the world have seen the future and are taking hold of it through well thought plans and preparations. To all intents and purposes a knowledge-based economy is impossible without encouraging research which birth innovation.

The involvement of Africa in global contribution and development of knowledge pales in comparison with the rest of the world generating below 1percent of the world’s scientific knowledge despite its huge population teeming with youth. The 2019 UNESCO’s institute of statistics estimates put the continent’s R&D funding at 0.42 percent which is below the global average of 1.7 percent. It’s the practice to have institutions, business enterprises, non-profit organisation aside government expenditure spending on R&D. However, in Africa these players are too weak to perform such roles which would have been salutary vis-à-vis the competing demands vying for government lean resources.

Basically, the wheel of R&D in Africa is either slow or not rolling at all due to poor or absence of funding. The truth is, Africa is still throttled by corruption and increase in expenditure on research under an atmosphere saturated with corruption will yield no results. So, aside improved funding focus is required on building strong institutions. Other important factors include: university-industry partnerships/linkages, effective legislation, support for industrial and manufacturing firm in prioritising R&D activities.

Africa must develop its research capabilities and manpower, if not, it may just languish as other continents race toward being active players in the rich field of technology and innovation. Having been fascinated by China’s phenomenal progress leading to adoption of myriad of its development models Africa should look to it for inspiration on this score.

Ungbo writes via [email protected]

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