Innovation, 4IR can help Africa rise from COVID-19 pandemic

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Phumza Dyani, chief innovation officer at PACCI.
Phumza Dyani, chief innovation officer at PACCI.

Africa must exploit innovation opportunities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, as this may be the catalyst needed to propel the continent into a competitive position on the global stage.

This is according to recently-appointed chief innovation officer of the Pan African Chamber of Commerce Phumza Dyani, who says Africa can position itself by aggressively driving the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) agenda.

Dyani, who is also an executive at Broadband Infraco, took over the additional role at the chamber last month.

The chamber is an independent, non-profit and non-partisan organisation established in 2009 to serve African business by promoting public policies that will foster continental economic integration, competitiveness and sustainable growth.

“Africa is an innovative continent with all kinds of problem-solving inventions that could potentially help improve not only the standard and quality of life, but also upgrade Africa’s position in the world economy, while simultaneously enhancing its competitiveness,” says Dyani.

However, she cautions that it seems Africa has not taken full advantage of this in driving its innovations to a globally competitive level.

“We can see how countries that have focused on innovation, like China and the United States, have industrialised and upgraded their economies.

“There has never been a more crucial time to drive innovation in order to remain relevant in the global economy.”

According to the African Development Bank, Africa's economic growth stabilised at 3.4% in 2019 (and is expected to be highly adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020) with slower growth in the continent's "big five" economies: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and SA.

Dyani believes there is no shortage of innovation in Africa “as the social fibre of Africa rests on resourcefulness and resilience”.

She argues the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity for the continent to start initiating home-grown developmental solutions.

“Nothing has spurred innovation faster than the outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa, with countries like Senegal developing ventilators as well as low-cost testing devices in order to support the testing and containment of the pandemic.

“In South Africa, we have never seen this intensity of collaboration and alignment across government ministries in order to roll out a country plan for the management of the pandemic. This tells us that developing countries can fast-track their development and competitive advantage in the marketplace, given there is a positive stimulus to drive towards a common goal.”

Dyani says Africa must take the opportunity presented by the deadly pandemic to drive innovation in unison.

“Numerous practical innovations have originated from Africa. I can count the smart jackets from Uganda which were created for immediate diagnosis of pneumonia in order to address a social challenge of deaths due to misdiagnosis of pneumonia.

“Closer to home, here in South Africa, surgeons used 3D printing to restore a patient’s hearing by reconstructing the patient’s broken bones in the middle ear after being severely damaged in a car accident.”

Dyani, who also leads the Africa Innovation Centre, is calling for more resources to be channelled towards research and development on the continent.

“Intelligent country and continental policies are imperative, especially in alignment with the AU’s Agenda 2063 – which is Africa’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future.

“Its aim is to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development, and is a concrete manifestation of the Pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and collective prosperity pursued under Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.”

Moreover, Dyani says the continent should view 4IR “as a potential for a great equaliser and an opportunity to position Africa in competitive industries”.

“Mass industrialisation using technology should position the continent as a critical player in the world’s value chains while ensuring inclusion and sustainability. This will require Africa’s think tanks as well as mass co-ordination with government.

“African governments need to step up their role as facilitators and enablers to ensure economic growth. The government is core as a major investor in infrastructure, resources, human capital, skills and education.”

Governments should also be instrumental in driving bold economic policies that can cultivate innovation. “Never has it been more important for Africa to innovate than now. If we do not innovate, our existence is doomed, especially at the cusp of 4IR.”

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