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Plenty of potential

Interview: Sonia PhalnikarJune 11, 2013

Africa is increasingly promoting research and innovation to combat climate change. The most efficient green innovations are those that take the continent's economic needs into account, a leading African researcher says.

Flap bag project http://www.flickr.com/photos/whiteafrican/3857594826/ Lizens: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.de FLAP Bags: With Henry Addo doing interviews in Accra These images are part of an ongoing series of posts on the FLAP bag project, a collaborative effort by Timbuk2, Portable Light and Pop!Tech. We at AfriGadget are helping to field-test these bags that have solar power and lighting on them, and get interviews of the individuals using them. Read more on AfriGadget: www.afrigadget.com/category/flap-bag-project/ +++CC/Erik Hersman+++
Flap Bag Project - Solarzellen in TaschenImage: CC/Erik Hersman

Africa has been hard hit by climate change. In recent years, the continent has stepped up efforts to use research and innovation to combat the problem. Kenya has seen the establishment of a Climate Innovation Center and an East Africa Climate Innovation Network. Last year, the African Union set up a science and technology advisory panel to develop a more Africa-centered research and development environment.

Kenyan-born Calestous Juma is professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard where he directs the Science, Technology and Globalization Project, as well as the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project. He is also the founding director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi and co-chair of the African Union's Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation. He has written widely on science, technology and sustainable development.

In an email interview with Global Ideas, Juma touches on the challenges and opportunities raised by climate change in Africa, the economic drivers behind a rash of innovations, the role of African universities and why dogma is holding back the continent's full research potential.

Global Ideas: Is climate awareness and research growing in Africa?

Calestous Juma: There has always been an Africa-centered climate research and innovation agenda. Because of Africa’s persistent droughts and the associated famines, Africa has since the 1970s been acutely aware of the implications of climatic variability. The fact that much of its economy is based on agriculture, employing up to 70 percent of the population in many countries, has also heightened awareness about climate change.

The World Bank last year set up a Climate Innovation Center in Kenya to assist clean tech entrepreneurs and help the region address climate change. What do you make of such initiatives?

Institutions such as the World Bank would help Africa greatly if such new centers were created within existing universities so they can leverage additional support from faculty and particularly students. By creating stand-alone entities, they send negative signals about the potential role of existing universities. This tends to generate resentment from local universities and there is ample evidence of opposition to otherwise good ideas arising from marginalization of African universities. It is really meaningless to talk about an African climate and innovation research agenda without engaging the continent’s centers of learning—which are the universities.

For instance, I have been working with the government of Slovenia to promote biopolymer research for green development in Africa and we have chosen to integrate our efforts in existing institutions. Through the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya, the initiative will link other international networks of research universities, government departments and the private sector from the region.

What are some of the factors still holding back research and innovation in Africa?

I think one of the main barriers to climate research is dogma. There is a general tendency to delink climate research from development. This not only reduces the significance of the topic, but it also limits the scope of broad participation, especially from the private sector. Many of the solutions to the challenge may come from constituencies that do not consider themselves as working on climate research. People who are promoting energy efficiency may be doing it for economic research but their actions could have significant contributions to the climate agenda.

Another aspect of dogma is the tendency to reduce much of the climate research to carbon emissions. We have to remember that Africa has a low industrial base and as a result it has low levels of carbon emissions. More people will resonate with the issue if it is placed in the broad context of ecological degradation.

What can Africa do to make its own unique contribution to global climate research?

Africa will need to incorporate climate considerations in its major development activities such as agriculture and infrastructure to make a difference. The linkages between agriculture and climate change go both ways. First, climate change is likely to hit African agriculture hard given the heavy dependence on rain-fed farming. On the other hand, the design of agricultural systems will need to take into greater account climate change. This is where research is needed. And achieving this will require a focus on reaching out to global research universities networks, engaging existing ones and linking them to farmers, companies, government departments and local communities. Fundamentally, an African climate research agenda should focus more on problem-solving with greater reliance on innovation.

But I think Africa’s most important contribution might be in its efforts to address economic challenges while at the same time reducing its ecological footprint. This is the essential feature of sustainable development. Imposing a rigid ecological requirement on the continent without taking economic needs into account will not work. The industrialized world has left a legacy of polarization between economic and ecological objectives, but Africa can avoid going down the same path.

In what areas do you see innovation and research directly contributing to tackling climate change?

There is a great deal of entrepreneurial and innovative energy in Africa. And much of its potential lies in technological leapfrogging. And this is offering indirect benefits of green innovation. For example, the widespread use of mobile phones across the continent has indirect and direct ecological benefits. Africa would have a much larger ecological footprint from the telecommunications sector if the same level of connectivity was provided by landlines instead of mobile technology. The “ecological savings” of mobile technology have yet to be quantified. But more directly, the adoption of solar photovoltaic technologies is also partly being driven by the need to power cell towers and charge phones.

So you're saying that climate considerations aren't driving much of the low-cost innovation in Africa such as solar lanterns or solar-powered cookers?

Many of the examples of clean energy such as solar power are being adopted for economic or convenience reasons but they also have ecological benefits. I do not think they are being adopted with the express objective of solving larger climate change concerns. I think this is the way Africa will go. Many of the most low-cost and efficient technologies also confer ecological benefits. In this regard, focusing on economic and energy efficiency also helps the environment.

Africa faces big odds when it comes to energy infrastructure. Millions of people on the continent have no access to the power grid. Doesn't that complicate efforts to become more energy efficient?

It's true that many parts of Africa do not have a traditional energy infrastructure. That certainly brings challenges. But it's also an opportunity to leapfrog into new and decentralized systems such as solar and wind. The potential for decentralized renewable energy technologies ranging from solar to wind is enormous, especially as prices continue to drop. The strategic focus for Africa should be on expanding the use of clean energy technology. Doing so will require providing suitable environments for the adoption of those technologies. For example, housing codes could be revised to make it easier to incorporate solar panels as part of the roofing. Similarly, feed-in tariffs would also enable decentralized producers to emerge.

But given the low level of energy availability, traditional energy sources such as hydro power will still be needed. It is essential for Africa to be pragmatic. For instance, China started off with coal plants but it is now emerging as a world leader in renewables. Africa can start off with a mix that is better than China did because of the availability of clean technologies that were not available to China. So Africa can build on the large quantities of scientific and technical knowledge available around the world to solve local problems in fields such as energy and environment.

Photo: Young girls with solar lamps (Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nokero/6106728487/in/set-72157631311110268 Licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.de +++CC/Nokero+++ 6. August 2011 geladen am 6.6.2013
Low-cost innovations such as solar lamps can make a huge difference for millions on the continent.Image: CC/Nokero
Photo: Woman types on a mobile telephone (Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ict4d/3067291623/in/photostream/ licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.de )
Africa is the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world.Image: CC/ICT4D.at
Photo: Farmers work on a field (Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/69594481@N06/6460097741/in/photolist-aQRFZx-9Zrji9-5Phgbs-9QVzFb-4rPkbi-7g6iPS-ejvfoo licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/deed.de CC/Twin and Twin Trading Images)
Agriculture still dominates the African economy. And it's here that adaptation measures are needed.Image: CC/Twin and Twin Trading Images
Photo: Students in a classroom (Photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Juma says climate research in Africa must be integrated into existing universities.Image: picture alliance/dpa
Photo: Harvard Professor Calestous Juma (Foto: Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University)
Calestous JumaImage: Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University