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Taking up challenge of knowledge economy

Dr Alex Tawanda Magaisa

I EMPHASISED in last week’s article that a key area to advance Africa’s escape from poverty and underdevelopment is to play a key role in the knowledge economy at both local and globa

l levels.

Economically competitive countries across the world invest heavily in the development of their knowledge economies. This partly explains the success of the emerging Asian economies. Over the years, they have invested heavily in the development of science and technology focusing on their key strengths.

Many African countries already possess key knowledge systems and natural resources that are necessary to promote science and technology to fuel the development of the knowledge economy. The only key questions centre around firstly, whether they are prepared to take up the challenge and secondly how they can harness local knowledge to achieve that end.

The first question is dependent on the governments’ political will.

The first step is to acknowledge the legitimacy of traditional knowledge systems within the African countries. In order to do this we need to accept that knowledge is not a monolithic entity but is diverse and expressed in different forms.

People create knowledge in response to challenges arising within their local contexts and for that reason most knowledge is local to the conditions in which it is created. It also takes its character from the purpose for which it is developed.

Medical knowledge is developed for the chief purpose of survival. Similarly people develop and grow crops to enable them to survive.

As a general rule therefore, knowledge is created as a matter of survival and people respond to different challenges within their contextual settings. This is why in Asian countries the local people had to master the best ways of growing rice and consequently, their knowledge of that crop is advanced and the varieties of that crop are diverse and well-developed.

It also explains why in sub-Saharan Africa, it has always been vital to grow drought-resistant crops and develop varieties that thrive in local conditions. Both are forms of traditional knowledge developed over centuries.

There is evidence however that food security has advanced in many respects in Asia because they have concentrated on advancing their knowledge on production of crops such as rice that suit their environments.

Yet in Africa we have not done much in that field and sadly most of the traditional species and crop varieties have been lost over the years. The problem is that in our search for modernity, we have lost the vital links with the past, which ought to inform our present and future development.

Therefore, at the official level we have to recognise the legitimacy of traditional knowledge systems. The very fact that Western corporations and research institutes have been keen to learn from traditional knowledge systems and extract local resources to promote medicinal drug development is enough justification for the validity of the local knowledge. They would not be interested if it was archaic and primitive.

Secondly, it is necessary to recognise that there is no necessary conflict between traditional knowledge and Western scientific knowledge. The apparent picture of conflict is a human construction that does not represent the factual position.

The historical encounter between the two knowledge systems was hostile, coming as it did at a time of imperialism and conflict between the settler communities and the traditional people.

A number of factors, too bulky a subject to be tackled in this article, contributed to the subordination of traditional knowledge and the assertion of positional superiority by Western forms of knowledge.

But as indicated in last week’s article, in countries like Zimbabwe, there has generally been a healthy interaction between scientists and traditional practitioners as far as sharing knowledge of medicinal plants for research purposes is concerned. There is willingness to engage in positive dialogue between the knowledge systems. The main challenge is not to protect the traditional knowledge from the Western knowledge systems but to create a healthy interaction that benefits both systems.

In my view, the fact that there is some collaboration between local scientists and traditional practitioners demonstrates that there is sufficient potential for positive and mutually enriching dialogue.

The problem arises when the proceeds of interaction through research are expropriated and exploited by those that claim to have funded the research. They claim ownership of the products to the exclusion of the locals, despite the latter’s contribution to the research.

As I see it, the challenge is not simply to devise laws that stop foreigners or their agents from accessing local knowledge and resources. That can only be a partial solution. The main challenge and a large part of the solution is for countries to develop their own research capacities in order to exploit and advance their local knowledge.

We have to start using the local knowledge with a long-term view. I appreciate that it can be difficult, in a context in which life expectancy is very short for people to have long-term perspectives to invest for the future even if we do not see the benefits in our life-time.

But consider that if policy makers had been more forward thinking at Independence, we could be reaping the benefits of long-term policies at this stage.

As far as the knowledge economy is concerned, it is not too late for us to join the race. The first stage is to enhance investment in science and technology – not necessarily by copying products produced in the West but focussing on enhancing our unique knowledge systems.

Our school science curriculum must not only teach students theories of Western science but must also open up possibilities to other ways of knowing from the local contexts. The challenge should not be to memorise information but to help people learn how to find knowledge.

Enhanced research and development will fuel production of knowledge and development of the local knowledge systems in collaboration with the Western systems.

The state must increase funding to universities and scientific research institutes, particularly where projects focus on developing local knowledge. The legal framework needs to be created to enable the fair and equitable allocation of rights and benefits arising from research and development.

Secondly, the private sector also has a role to play in advancing the development of the knowledge economy. In fact, the private sector must learn from their counterparts in the West and Asia by focussing more on knowledge-oriented products which have greater value on the market.

Consequently, research and development are key departments of business enterprises in the developed and emerging markets. Arguably, a survey of most enterprises in African countries will reveal very limited investment in research and development. Besides direct investment there is also possible participation through providing venture capital to support start-up enterprises focussed on research in local science and technology.

The reality is that this knowledge is in demand but it is likely to fetch more value when it is advanced and more refined. Currently, primary knowledge provided by traditional communities fetches low value because the market is informal and insufficiently developed to standards that make it more marketable to those that need it.

There is great potential to support further research that adds value to the primary knowledge. Not only is the primary knowledge and biological resources available in abundance but in the case of Zimbabwe it has consistently produced high calibre scientists that are sought after across the world.

Evidently, one problem is brain-drain that has affected Zimbabwe and most of Africa. Tackling this problem needs greater political will.

This article cannot do justice to this issue but suffice to say that the advancement of Africa in the knowledge economy requires that it not only create conditions to retain, but also to attract back the skilled personnel who could play the key roles.

Finally, this series of articles has sought to highlight some key elements in our midst, which can be crucial to assisting our continent from the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment. This is by no means a complete prescription but a part of the bigger picture.

I have in this column touched on issues of corporate governance and discipline, proper regulation and wider socio-economic issues. There is no single solution to our troubles but we need to have a long-term view. We need the capacity to compete at local and international levels. All too often we tend to engage in blame shifting, arguing that the West is the enemy and the sole cause of all our problems, and in the process refusing to see and accept our own mistakes and faults.

This series was meant to put the message by way of question: What has the West got to do with our failure to exploit our local resources?

At some point we must stop moaning and instead start exploiting our heritage for something positive and show, for once, how our coveted past can be critical to the development of the knowledge economy.

* Dr Magaisa is a specialist in corporate and financial law and can be contacted through wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk.

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