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Africa missing out on knowledge economy

By Alex Tawanda Magaisa

THE challenges of underdevelopment and poverty in Africa are currently under the spotlight across the world. This week we begin a series of articles devoted to how our continent can o

vercome some of these challenges.

The solutions to Africa’s problems lie within the continent. However, in relation to proposals for reform, much depends on whether the leadership has the necessary political will.

Africa needs to develop new sources of generating wealth and open up avenues to participate in the global economy. One key avenue for Africa is to utilise its local knowledge to play a more prominent role in the new knowledge economy.

The concept of the knowledge economy revolves around the idea that knowledge is the key source of production and wealth creation in the economy.

The centrality of knowledge in today’s global economic system has given rise to what has been called the “knowledge economy” in which the weight of global economic activity is moving towards knowledge-oriented products and services. Advanced economies of the West and emerging economies of Asia are now largely centred on the creation and development of knowledge.

The major corporate players have become more dependent on the development and acquisition of new knowledge and less dependent on traditional resources such as land and minerals.

The intellectual capital of a corporation is far more valuable than the buildings, land and other physical resources that it owns.

Asian countries such as South Korea, India, Singapore, etc, realised that it was necessary to develop their knowledge capacity in order to compete on the global market. They have largely succeeded by enhancing their knowledge capacity in information communication technology and related industries. Part of the reason for the success of their economies is that they have become strong and competitive rivals to the Western countries in the knowledge economy.

It is therefore imperative for African countries to embrace this concept and become key players in the knowledge economy. More significantly, there is great potential because of the availability of immense traditional knowledge systems which can be harnessed to create a competitive edge.

How can Africans do this? The problem in Africa is that we are recipients of technology and do not play a key role in innovation. The tendency is often to buy or copy what the Western or Asian countries have already developed.

African countries need to devise strategic technology development policies that do not imitate the Western models but focus on their needs and exploit their unique characteristics and resources. But what are these unique resources?

An example is the potentially lucrative resource that has to date been under-utilised and marginalised in Africa. However, if fully exploited it could give Africa a competitive edge in the knowledge economy. This resource is traditional medical knowledge, which we often dismiss as quaint and superstitious. Ironically, major pharmaceutical and biomedical research organisations in the West have been busy scouring African forests and conducting research among traditional communities to extract traditional medical knowledge that can lead them to medicinal plants. Whereas before the Western powers sought land and minerals, today they seek knowledge and they have been getting away with it because we, the custodians, do not place enough value on what we have.

There have been many cases of Western companies exploiting traditional medical knowledge for pharmaceutical research. A recent case involved the use by a Swiss university and US company of traditional knowledge about the medicinal use of the mutukutu plant in Zimbabwe, which has ingredients to treat fungal infections. The medicinal drug was claimed as belonging to the Western entities regardless of the source of the primary knowledge.

Another is the Hoodia Gordoni plant historically used by the San communities, which has been used to develop a drug to treat obesity by a US pharmaceutical company. While many have rightly focused on the unfair benefit sharing arrangements by Western companies, these cases clearly demonstrate a key weakness within the African communities.

There is something lacking in our own strategies in relation to locally available knowledge that could be harnessed for development. Where are we when the Western companies obtain and use traditional knowledge for medicinal drug development?

Is this not the knowledge that US companies are using to gain a competitive advantage across the world? Ironically, the medicines developed from the use of this knowledge are sold to the same African countries usually at exorbitant prices. At that point we begin to moan that the West is unfair, but why are we not taking steps to use the knowledge that is part of the heritage of local communities? If they can harness it, what is the cause of our failure to do the same?

The failure to use the local knowledge is yet another example of the inability to appreciate local resources that can help to give us some competitive advantages.

We are too quick to dismiss all things traditional as archaic and useless. It has been reported that Zimbabwe is home to thousands of plant species that have medicinal use yet very little has been done to research and develop capacity.

The problem is that people often associate knowledge with that which is taught and acquired in formal schools. In our schools we are supplied with a flood of information but unfortunately, we are not taught how to acquire knowledge. Few among ourselves realise that knowledge can also be gained through experience and passed on through generations.

There are scientists that have tried to collect, document and preserve traditional herbal remedies in Zimbabwe. Professor Michael Gelfand was among the foremost authorities on this subject – a medical doctor who realised that there was much value in traditional medicines that could be useful in drug development. However, his catalogue of medicinal plants is hardly put to use.

Today there are scientists such as Professor Gundidza and Dr Mashava at the University of Zimbabwe who have been heavily involved with traditional practitioners in efforts to harness traditional knowledge.

In my research, I counted at least 20 dissertations written by students in the pharmacy department at the University of Zimbabwe since 1982 that have focused on traditional medical knowledge. Sadly, much of this student research ends at this academic stage and does not proceed further. It is probably picked up by researchers from Western companies who go on to use it to develop knowledge within their own environs.

Scientists and traditional practitioners in Zimbabwe argue that although there is a willingness to promote collaborative research to enhance the dialogue between traditional and Western scientific knowledge to enhance knowledge capacity, there is limited funding.

The result is that they have to rely on Western organisations and governments to support their research. This includes the provision of funds and technical equipment for research. The result however is that Zimbabweans are only involved in primary research which involves obtaining knowledge and screening of biological materials and the Western organisations do the rest and end up claiming exclusive rights to the products of the research.

Why can’t the African governments realise that some of the cures to the common diseases lie in our own backyards? Why can’t they devote serious money to develop research and development in medicinal drugs that could help to treat disease and also bring huge amounts of foreign currency through export of knowledge.

This is knowledge that has high export value but we dismiss it as archaic. The foremost voice of the traditional medical fraternity in Zimbabwe Professor Gordon Chavunduka has long argued that if properly harnessed, this is knowledge that is capable of advancing the country’s knowledge base.

It is necessary to recognise the value of the knowledge that is available within our local environments and to make strategies to exploit it for development.

The Western companies are already doing their best to acquire this knowledge and the biological resources in Africa to enhance their competitive advantage while we watch and moan about our poverty. We do not do enough to exploit our traditional knowledge in order to become key players in the global knowledge economy.

A viable strategy to exploit traditional medical knowledge could enable the rural communities to play a role in the knowledge economy and consequently enhance development at both local and national levels.

*Alex Tawanda Magaisa spe-cialises in corporate and financial services law. Contact him at wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk.

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