Stories are told of how, in the 18th Century, a self-educated clockmaker developed new reliable and accurate techniques, in pursuit of a cash reward offered by the British Parliament for a way to calculate longitude at sea. Shortly, the French government reportedly offered a prize for food preservation, which led to the discovery of how to prevent spoilage in glass bottles. Later a series of privately-funded prizes followed, especially in advancing aviation technology, including particularly the Orteig prize for the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris claimed by Charles Lindbergh in 1927, the Kremer prizes for human-powered flight claimed by a team led by Paul MacCready in 1977.
These stories, apart from their human-interest value, attest to how governments in the developed economies spurred innovations despite the subtle constraint of asymmetry of information between researchers and beneficiaries given the fact that successful research involves the disclosure of something not yet known, which makes it a difficult thing to buy or sell. But most importantly, in my view, the stories also inform developing economies such as ours to borrow a leaf because research is a fundamental determinant of economic growth and for agriculture, which still remains the backbone of our livelihoods.
Early this year, President Museveni noted how agro-processing transformed many countries. He cited the Scandinavian countries, which he said have now proceeded to other levels of industrialisation such as electronics. The President said much as our scientists have made a lot of inventions in food technology, light engineering, medicines, and general science and even in electronics, a lot still needs to be done. He said in the new structure of government, he will create a dedicated section to deal with scientific innovation and probably set up funds for research, innovation and for commercialisation of innovations.
The President reiterated this position during the recent State-of-the-Nation address: “Our scientists at Makerere have already produced electric automobiles and I tasked them to work on solar water pumps. My office has collected all the names of the people involved. We shall fund them using these huge sums of money that go to waste in the hands of all sorts of actors,” he said.
This resolve by the President is a welcome idea and my unsolicited counsel is that it should have a component that rewards innovators or inventors for benefits accruing to consumers and others, beyond what they can capture under patent protection or what they do as public service job. For example, what happens to the scientists who bred the popular Namulonge Beans (the NABE series) that have become popular internationally? I used to buy NABE from a Nigerian food vendor in the Netherlands in 2013.
I think research prizes will go a long way in addressing the most widely studied factor limiting the market for research, which is the public-goods character of disclosure: it is non-rival, and often non-excludable.
I agree with the President that relying on foreign innovators will certainly not take us anywhere. I was recently intrigued by an article published in a 2005 edition of Int. J. Biotechnology in which the author argues that a much larger fraction of Africa’s agricultural area has low ability to transfer nutrients to plants and/or low ability to hold moisture for plants. This, according to the author, limits the spill-in from research and development conducted elsewhere, thus leaving the continent with limited stocks and flows of new technology.
That analysis, factual as it maybe, in my view has the pitfall of re-echoing the old lullaby of Africa relying on imported technologies.
Mr Atibuni is a development communication officer with Naro based at Abi ZARDI. firstname.lastname@example.org