Dream on…

Of all the continents, Africa spends the least on research and development. Here msafiri’s business columnist Nkem Ifejika asks whether Africa is right to concentrate on just the basics

Kiira-EV-SMACKWhen the Kiira EV Smack was unveiled in Nairobi in November, I studied the launch with a combination of trepidation and joy. Here was a hybrid car, conceived and built on the African continent with the dream of becoming a mass-market product. I felt trepidation because I wondered whether the Ugandans who manufactured it were trying to run before they could walk. And joy because it’s exactly the kind of innovation the continent needs to succeed in the 21st century.

The likes of Toyota, with their Prius, or the makers of the fully electric Tesla, won’t be quaking as they look at East Africa’s offering, simply because they’re so far ahead of the game. But it raises the question of what kind of venture/adventure is a worthwhile pursuit. Should Africa deal only with the basics (putting food on people’s tables, improving sanitation, creating access to clean drinking water) instead of supposedly irrelevant ‘pie-in-the-sky’ ideas. There may well be people looking at the Kiira and thinking, “How does this affect the price of ugali?”.

I always point people to the Victorian era in England. As Michael Faraday was conducting experiments to create electricity, Charles Dickens was, around the same time, writing Oliver Twist and chronicling childhood poverty. The chimney sweeps of London must have thought Faraday’s work fanciful and pretentious. Hindsight, however, is a wonderful thing, and nobody would begrudge the work of those early pioneers who paved the way for the electricity we now all cherish and couldn’t live without.

When knowledge is pursued for its own sake, the practical benefits are not always immediately obvious. Eventually, though, opportunities present themselves. To think the technology used in the moon landing was no more powerful than a pocket calculator gives you a flavour of what can be done with relatively little. Lack of space inside rockets spawned the laptop computer, and not being able to grill a steak while in orbit created advances in food preservation.

There are ‘space programmes’ in Africa. Their uses and concerns are not so stellar, but very much of this planet. Having satellites in orbit is important. The images from space have been used to calculate compensation for farmers in the aftermath of floods. Satellites can remove the need for telephone calls between African countries to be routed through Europe.

Of all the continents, Africa spends the least on research and development. And perhaps this is reflected in where its economy sits in relation to others. If corporations don’t see a compelling business reason to invest in long-term research and development, they won’t spend the money. In the end, it’s governments that make the initial investment before companies can take advantage of the work that’s already been done. But the compelling reason to seek knowledge for its own sake is that it is noble: no knowledge is lost; and profit will come in the end. So the Kiiras of this world should carry on, and the best of luck to them!