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Government looks to science, innovation to rejig economy

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 24 Jan 2022
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong at the opening of the NantSA vaccine manufacturing facility in Cape Town. (Image source: GCIS)
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong at the opening of the NantSA vaccine manufacturing facility in Cape Town. (Image source: GCIS)

President Cyril Ramaphosa says science and innovation are playing a far more prominent role in the country’s efforts to overcome COVID-19 and rebuild the economy.

Ramaphosa’s remarks follow the opening of the NantSA vaccine manufacturing facility in Cape Town, which forms part of a multimillion-rand investment by technology company NANTWorks.

As African nations continued to face inequality in access to COVID-19 vaccines, NANTWorks, headed by South African-born scientist Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, last year announced plans to build capacity for advanced healthcare on the continent.

Taking to his weekly newsletter this morning, Ramaphosa lauded the opening of the facility, saying it will aid SA’s quest to become a hub of scientific innovation, research and development.

The president also pointed to the launch of three SA-made nanosatellites into space earlier this month as being key examples of how the country is positioning itself as an innovation hub.

“These are just some of the projects that demonstrate how science and technology have a key role to play in our economic recovery, in attracting greater levels of investment, and in contributing to skills, knowledge and technology transfer to capacitate our country’s workforce.

“We are therefore prioritising investment in science, technology and innovation to revitalise and modernise existing industries, as well as to create new sources of growth and stimulate industrialisation. There is huge potential in agriculture, mining, energy and manufacturing, among others.”

As the world slowly emerges from the grips of COVID-19, there’s mounting pressure to rebuild economic activity and find opportunities that will address the country’s unemployment crisis.

Statistics SA’s unemployment data for July to September 2021 shows SA’s jobless rate rose to 34.9% in the third quarter of 2021, up from 34.4% in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, employment slumped by 660 000 to 14.2 million and the labour force plunged by 842 000 to 21.9 million.

According to Ramaphosa, government is pursuing several collaborative partnerships with the private sector and academia to broaden the frontiers of science and innovation.

“We have, for example, undertaken projects around hydrogen, energy storage and renewable energy. We have supported emerging farmers through the Agricultural Bio-Innovation Partnership Programme. Government also has funding partnerships with a number of South African universities in the field of nanotechnology development.

“We are looking far into space by enhancing the capabilities of the South African Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project and supporting a number of new discoveries using the MeerKAT telescope. At the same time, we are using science to support and guide municipalities to plan for and assess the risks of climate change.

“We are looking at how to harness new technologies for development, such as using 3D printing to build houses,” he explains.

With increasing demand for talent in the tech economy, government has been making concerted efforts to upskill and equip young people with digital skills in order to participate in the digital economy.

Ramaphosa indicates that to forge ahead with transformation to a truly digital economy and society, there needs to be a combination of technical skills and intellectual enterprise.

“We need solid investment in skills development in these different industries, and a firm commitment to increase the number of students studying science, if we are to promote scientific excellence and its attendant economic benefits.

“We will therefore continue to support initiatives such as the Grassroots Innovation Programme of the Department of Science and Innovation, which provides support to local innovators to develop their concepts, create prototypes and commercialise their ideas. There is also the Imvelisi Enviropreneurs Programme that has bootcamps and business mentoring for innovators in the green economy, and a host of other incubation initiatives being piloted on campuses across the country in areas such as deep learning, artificial intelligence and data science.

“As we strive to harness science, technology and innovation in the cause of economic growth, we must provide all the necessary support to innovators and become a country that nurtures great ideas.

“Through the combination of our established scientific infrastructure and expertise, new investment in research and development and support to budding innovators, we will and are able to propel our country into the fourth industrial revolution.

“And most importantly, we will be able to more effectively use technology to grow our economy, create jobs and improve people’s lives,” concludes Ramaphosa.