Silicon Savanna

2 April, 2014

The stampede to engage businesses for development

UKCDS has started to unpack the opportunities the private sector presents for the future of science for development.

Unleashing the private sector for development is the fad du jour,* a trend that one influential review of 2013 noted “would have seemed unthinkable ten, perhaps even five years ago.” But, like most fads, there is a good idea in there somewhere, when carefully thought through. UKCDS is a group that brings together UK research funders with interests in international development, and we have started to unpack the opportunities the private sector presents for the future of science for development.

In January, Justine Greening announced a new Director General role in DFID for Economic Development, an accompanying strategic framework, and a “dramatic journey” in how DFID works with the private sector. Beneath these statements of intent there is less clarity about how best to engage the private sector in academic research for international development.

The dominant paradigm for private sector partnership in high income countries involves companies who fund research (through universities or their own R&D labs) in exchange for knowledge or technologies which drive their own growth in local and international markets. This doesn’t usually hold in most developing countries – where there is little research funding from the private sector.

But just last week Phillips announced its Africa Innovation Hub in Nairobi. IBM opened an innovation centre there last year. These developments are important – companies sinking their own profits into wholly owned, or ‘captive’ R&D centres suggest that they think there are (or will be) skills to draw on in Kenya that can drive their growth.

Kenya has been promoting itself quite successfully as an IT hub, ”Silicon Savanna”, for a few years now, and the Konza City project aims to cement this role into the future. But it can be hard to distinguish the hype from the reality – the world is littered with struggling Silicon Valley knockoffs, from Malaysia’s “Multimedia Super Corridor” to the brilliantly nicknamed “Chilecon Valley”…

India’s transformation since 1985 (when the first foreign corporate R&D centre opened there) has been remarkable. Indian R&D teams now design mission critical software systems for Boeing and portable ultrasound machines for the world’s rural doctors with General Electric.

Could Kenya do the same? And what would this do for development 20 years from now? More African-developed solutions for African challenges?

As the Secretariat supports UKCDS funders to plan for the future, we will be exploring the changing dynamics of both global science, and international development. Growing private sector funding for research in developing countries is only one part of this narrative – but potential new clusters of research excellence might provide exciting opportunities (public and private) to develop solutions that have a transformative effect on the world’s poor.

Keep an eye on our website for more details on UKCDS’ work in this area.

* Would be bettered only by adding graphene and ‘big data’ to the mix.

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