Raising the visibility of African research and innovation

Posted on April 29, 2019

In 2018 the bottom rung of the Global Innovation Index rankings published by the World Intellectual Property Organization prominently featured countries from the Global South. This bottom rung was further dominated by African nations, with the rankings suggesting that the innovation leaders for low income (of under US$1,005) countries are Tanzania, Rwanda and Senegal. 

The Global Innovation Index report explains that there are 20 countries that outperform on innovation relative to their levels of development and, of these, six are Sub-Saharan African countries, including South Africa for the first time in 2018. Notably, Kenya, Rwanda, Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar have all been on the list three times in eight years. 

The rankings measure countries by looking at all aspects of innovation such as research and business strengths, innovation activities and output and human capital. As is expected, countries which perform very well on the index are in the West and Global North (with Singapore being the only exception) and include Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom. These are all countries whose governments invest heavily in research and development and have prioritised this at a policy level. 

Barriers to visibility

When one looks at the list of academic journals that form part of the high-level and highly-cited scientific indices and databases which guarantee that peer-reviewed research is internationally visible, there is a distinct bias towards English-written-and-spoken journals. 

This might seem like a petty point to highlight in a world that is increasingly dominated by English, but it prevents many other forms of published research – Spanish and Portuguese, for example, are lingua francas of Latin America – from ever being considered as highly viable. 

In addition to the problem of language, publishing in journals on high impact and visible databases carry relatively exorbitant fees (pitched in US dollars) for developing nation economies. This is the reality of many developing nations whose highly successful academics are not considered 'world class' because world class is by definition the Western norm. 

If a local journal in the Global South cannot afford to pay the fees to be considered on a high impact database, it is simply excluded and research published in local journals does not get to compete on an international level. These economic, social and cultural prejudices which researchers from developing nations in the Global South face, hinder the reach and impact of local journals and databases by rendering them invisible to mainstream (Western) science. 

If research is not visible, it is not used or cited. If it is not cited, it never makes the cut in the high impact index list which is largely based on citations. This is a vicious cycle which forever holds African (and Global South) researchers and universities to ransom. 

Therefore, based on what we know of how these indices work, we can be assured that the vast majority of the world’s research output and scientific endeavour could be excluded by the very prejudices that declare our research output miniscule. 

Rise of open access 

Africa is believed to contribute only 1% of the world’s innovation, research and development. It does not mean that this is all our research output or innovative ideas amount to globally; neither does it mean that we are not as intelligent as Western academics and researchers, nor that we lack quality institutions. 

What it does mean is that our visibility through what is regarded as high impact journals is reduced to only 1%. This is slowly changing through the rise in popularity of open access journals, most notably led by Brazil’s Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) network which allows whole articles to be accessed instead of just an abstract, and South Africa is part of this network. 

Western media continues to brandish the image of a poor, starving, politically unstable and economically depressed continent marred by violence, corruption, disease and natural disasters. While these images may hold some truth to the general continental condition, there are numerous developments and achievements by researchers in developing nations across Africa who are actively working to mitigate these conditions. 

The transdisciplinary research expected to happen at Future Africa at the University of Pretoria in South Africa is key to making this a reality and will be a means by which Africans can take control of their own research output and innovations to find solutions to local problems which have a global impact. 

There is a ripple effect with problems faced in Africa that are exacerbated by poverty and the extractive economies that our continent is built upon. Extractive economies mean our raw materials are taken at a low cost and goods produced elsewhere are sold back to Africans at a higher rate. In order for us to achieve a measure of economic independence, self-sufficiency and sustainability, African countries and corporations working in Africa need to invest more in the research and development capacity of our young continent. 

The future belongs to Africa

With the average age on the continent being just under 20 years old, and representing around 20% of the world’s population, it stands to reason that the future belongs to Africa. Issues like water and food security, poverty, primary health care and disease control, education, infrastructure development and ethical corporate and political governance issues have an impact throughout the world because what is often brandished in the mainstream media as Africa’s problems, are not Africa’s problems exclusively. 

How do we imagine and reimagine Africa’s future if we do not call upon government, funders and the research sector as a whole to invest in finding solutions to pan-African concerns? We need to make an impact today to ensure that Africa has the research and development capacity it needs to ensure that everyday challenges faced by Africans have innovative solutions. 

As Africans and the Global South in general, we face seemingly insurmountable odds to develop at a faster rate and leapfrog technologies. 

Centuries of oppression and colonialism have impacted on our ability to practically overcome a system which seeks to re-enslave us through debt, prejudiced foreign policy, exploitation of our environment and an unwillingness on the part of mainstream science and the media to acknowledge our role in redesigning our collective futures with research and innovation that matters to us, and makes a difference. 

We may never win the war against a system that renders our achievements invisible to Western science, but we can make a difference by making use of the technologies, resources and avenues open to us. Knowledge is not what is stored behind a paywall of a publication; it is the wisdom to apply what we know in a practical context and to share our findings for the benefit of society as a whole. 

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard FoundationUniversity World News is solely responsible for the editorial content. 

Professor Tawana Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria (UP), South Africa. Future Africa is a trans- and multi-disciplinary research initiative at UP, which is committed to finding sustainable solutions to some of the world’s most pressing concerns. 

- Author Prof Tawana Kupe

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