Speaking ahead of the Department of Science and Technology's Science Forum South Africa 2017, DST Director-General Dr Phil Mjwara says there has been encouraging progress in some sectors and among emerging businesses in South Africa, as the DST actively drives the innovation agenda.
"In broader terms, South African organisations are generally innovative, particularly in areas such as finance, retail and the food industry," he says, citing technology-based approaches and models being applied to areas such as forestry, and new aerospace players developing solutions from South Africa for the global market.
"But areas where we have to work harder include agriculture, mining and supporting the emergence of high tech, innovative small and medium enterprises (SMEs)," he says.
"In the SME space, the DST is now working with organisations such as the Industrial Development Corporation, Public Investment Corporation, National Treasury and Department Small Business Development to consider funding models that will support the next generation of high tech SMEs with strong export potential. We need to create an enabling environment that makes it easier for people to enter this space without fear of failure, with a risk funding 'cushion' in place."
In the mining sector, the DST is supporting initiatives to modernise mining for greater efficiency.
"It doesn't make sense to blast the entire Witwatersrand to find ore, for example," says Mjwara. "We need to use modern satellite and laser technologies to pinpoint the ore and mine in a smarter way, minimising the costs. In addition, if you consider the depths at which we mine, there are safety issues that can be best addressed by harnessing advanced new technologies."
Agriculture also stands to benefit from the digital revolution and smarter approaches, he says.
"It's important for us to understand that sectors such as agriculture need modernisation – you simply can't do it the way you did it 40 years ago. You need smart agriculture; we must harness new techniques and technologies for maximum yields and, whether we like it or not, we need to be researching drought-resistant crops in the face of a changing environment. So we need to look at future-proofing all sectors through science, modern technology and innovation."
The DST's efforts to drive progress in science, technology and innovation are supporting the growth of pockets of innovation across the country, Mjwara says.
"I am delighted about some of the breakthroughs we're seeing. In Pretoria, an innovative firm is now 3D printing parts for aircraft; the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research is working with an American organisation on the development of gene-based personalised medicine; and a new biotech wheat-breeding platform launched in Stellenbosch recently has the potential to change the import-export flows of capital. So we believe we are on the cusp of making the kind of impact we hope to see."
The third Science Forum South Africa, being held in Pretoria this week, is aimed at stimulating public discourse on the role of science in society. The two-day forum will showcase new trends and technologies and focus on promoting pan-African cooperation in science and technology, and on the role of innovation in inclusive development.
For more information about Science Forum South Africa 2017, visit http://www.sfsa.co.za/.