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The Agricultural Innovation in Africa project (AIA) is funded by a generous grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the purpose of providing support to efforts that contribute to agricultural science and technology policy improvement through Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs). The Project seeks to engage with policymakers and focus information dissemination on efforts to align science and technology missions and operations with agricultural development goals in the RECs as part of the larger agenda to promote regional economic integration.
The AIA project builds on the findings of the expert report "Freedom to Innovate: Biotechnology in Africa's Development", compiled by a panel of experts (the High Level African Panel on Modern Biotechnology) from both inside and outside Africa. The panel was established by the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) to provide independent advice on biotechnology. The panel's main recommendations include the need for individual countries in central, eastern, western, northern and southern Africa to work together at the regional level to scale up the development of biotechnology.
The current concerns over rising food prices have compounded concerns about the state and future of African agriculture. This sector has historically lagged behind the rest of the world. Part of the problem lies in the low level of investment in Africa's agricultural research and development. Enhancing African agricultural development will require specific efforts aimed at aligning science and technology strategies with agricultural development efforts. Furthermore, such efforts will need to be pursued as part of Africa's growing interest in regional economic integration through it's Regional Economic Communities (RECs).
The African Union (AU) recognizes the following RECs as the continent's economic building blocks: Community of Sahel Sahara States (CEN-SAD); Arab Maghreb Union (AMU); Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS); Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); Southern African Development Community (SADC); Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD); Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); the East African Community (EAC).
African leaders have in recent years been placing increasing emphasis on the role of science and innovation in economic transformation. The 8th African Union Summit met in January 2007 and adopted a series of decisions on science and technology for development. The decisions are part of a growing body of guidance on the role of science and innovation in Africa's economic transformation. These decisions underscore the growing importance that African leaders are putting on science and innovation for development.
However, the translation of these decisions into concrete action remains a key challenge for Africa. This initiative is guided by the view that part one of the main problems facing African countries is aligning instruments of governance at the national and regional levels with long-term technological considerations. This challenge is emerging at a time of when African countries are seeking to deepen economic integration and expand domestic markets. These efforts are likely to affect the way agricultural policy is pursued in Africa.
The decisions paid particular attention to the role of science, technology and innovation in Africa's economic transformation. The leaders marked 2007 as "as the launching year of building constituencies and champions for science, technology and innovation in Africa." The focus on their decision was the need to undertake the necessary policy reforms needed to align the missions and operations of institutions of higher learning with economic development goals in general and the improvement of human welfare in particular.
These decisions represent a clear expression of political will and interest to pursue specific reforms that would help in making science, technology and innovation relevant to development. However, they capacity to do so is limited by the lack of informed advice on international comparative experiences on the subject. The central focus of this three-year initiative is to provide high-level decision makers through the RECs with information on how to integrate science and technology into agricultural development discussions and strategies. Specific attention will do placed on identifying emerging technologies and exploring how they can be adopted to local economic conditions.
Freedom to Innovation: Biotechnology in Africa's Development was compiled by a panel of experts (the High Level African Panel on Modern Biotechnology) from both inside and outside Africa. The panel was established by the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) to provide independent advice on biotechnology. The panel's main recommendations include the need for individual countries in central, eastern, western, northern and southern Africa to work together at the regional level to scale up the development of biotechnology.
A key vehicle for advancing innovation is through clusters of expertise, sharing knowledge, creative ideas, personnel, and working on problems and projects collaboratively. Regional Innovation Communities (RICs) might include institutions that are already situated close together, such as universities, science-based industry and science parks. But today, institutions do not need to be in close proximity to work together. Effective and successful collaboration can take place between people and institutions that are geographically separate so long as the will exists to do so.
The report's other recommendations include: outlining priority areas in biotechnology that are of relevance to Africa's development; identifying critical capabilities needed for the development and safe use of biotechnology; establishing appropriate regulatory measures that can advance research, commercialization, trade and consumer protection; and setting strategic options for creating and building regional biotechnology innovation communities and local innovation areas in Africa.
Other relevant studies that will serve as sources of ideas on how to improve agricultural science and technology in Africa include Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Kept out of Africa by Robert Paarlberg (Harvard University Press). The book indentifies many of the key institutional and policy barriers to the adoption of agricultural biotechnology in Africa and offers a wide range of proposals that could used to improve the situation.
One of the key challenges facing African nations is establishing policies and governance structures that are in line with long-term technological goals. This is illustrated by institutional difficulties associated with agricultural production. While the sector is considered to be critical to most African economies, its operations are often handled through sectoral ministries. Furthermore, essential institutions such as universities are often not effectively linked to agricultural operations.