Innovation key to Africa’s development, says AfDB Acting Chief Economist and Vice-President

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“A focus on knowledge and innovation and how they impact Africa’s transformation will help draw out a number of insights that rarely emanate from such conferences” – Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa

As the African Development Bank’s Acting Chief Economist and Vice-President, Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa supervises the Complex of the Chief Economist, which oversees three main business lines: research and knowledge creation; statistics and statistical capacity building; and enhancing development effectiveness through capacity building.

Kayizzi-Mugerwa has a long and extensive experience in economic research and development garnered at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, where he received his PhD and later became Associate Professor, during research collaboration with African universities; at the IMF where he was Senior Economist; and at the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), where he was Project Director. At the Bank he has been Director of Research, Director of East Africa, Director of Policy, Lead Economist and Head of the Extended Mission to Zimbabwe. His latest publication is a book on urbanization and development which he co-edited and co-authored with the AfDB’s Abebe Shimeles and Nadege Désirée Yameogo. Urbanization and Socio-Economic Development in Africa – Challenges and Opportunities was published by Routledge London in 2014.

In this interview he discusses what he considers to be the expected impact of the 2014 African Economic Conference taking place from November 1-3 in Addis Ababa and how the findings could influence the pace of innovation and structural transformation in Africa.

Knowledge and innovation and their impact on Africa’s transformation will be core issues at the 2014 African Economic Conference to be held in Addis Ababa. Since the Bank Group is a joint organizer and contributor to the conference, how will the institution’s thinking in the area of knowledge management be highlighted at the conference and how will it contribute to a people-centered development for a prosperous Africa?

Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa: As you know, we are organizing the 2014 African Economic Conference jointly with the Economic Commission for Africa and the United Nations Development Programme. This year we agreed that the issues of knowledge and innovation should be given pride of place as they are so crucial to Africa’s transformation. At the Bank, we believe that knowledge management is a fundamental pillar for sustained growth. In the course of the Bank’s work as lender and policy adviser, a considerable amount of knowledge is generated. Unfortunately if this knowledge is not well harnessed, it will not be able to improve future project implementation or policy dialogue with regional member countries. Similarly, countries need to make the management of knowledge a crucial aspect of their development strategies, and a contributor to learning by doing. True innovation requires a solid knowledge base.

The Conference has, therefore, been organized with a view to highlighting the constraints to a broader sharing and better management of knowledge in Africa, and how knowledge should best feed into the countries’ innovation strategies. We have invited leading practitioners from the public and private sectors as well as researchers from academia to share their views.

The push for Africa’s economic transformation is not new. At the continental level, several action plans have been devised over the years including the Lagos Plan of Action, the Abuja Treaty and the launch of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). What paradigm shift is needed, in your view, to ensure the success of future initiatives through greater use of knowledge and innovation in pursuit of Africa’s development?

SKM: Yes, it would be fair to say that greater use of knowledge and innovation could have helped in the implementation of the many development initiatives that Africa embarked on in the past. There was generally a tendency to emphasize aspiration rather than practical steps for implementation. For example, the Yamoussoukro Agreement from the late 1990s on Open Skies in Africa could potentially have drastically modernized African aviation and reduced costs for air transport. There was little follow-up in terms of analysis and policy advocacy and Africa still has among the least competitive airspaces in the world. The Conference will thus also emphasize the importance of knowledge dissemination, and ensuring that knowledge is used to solve problems of both a practical and strategic nature.

What do you think makes this year’s African Economic Conference different from previous ones?

SKM: Each Conference has its special climate and aura depending on its theme, location and of course the participants attending. I, however, expect this Conference to be quite different from previous ones in the sense that the theme was intentionally chosen to depart from the usual crop of issues that are broadly debated among the development community, such as poverty reduction, agricultural development or urbanization. I feel strongly that a focus on knowledge and innovation and how they impact Africa’s transformation will help draw out a number of insights that rarely emanate from such conferences. Additionally, we have invited heads of African universities and think tanks to the Conference to hear their view on whether the knowledge being generated in Africa’s institutions of higher learning is boosting Africa’s capacity for innovation. Lastly, the Conference was planned before the Ebola outbreak. The epidemic has defined the limitations of our research capacities and knowledge base in Africa and globally, and the importance of ensuring that knowledge generating institutions are competent and reliable.