Eastern Cape’s drive towards innovation

Business, government and the education sector in the Eastern Cape have been urged to embrace innovation to help improve conditions such as service delivery in the province.

Speaking during a roadshow on science, technology and innovation (STI) indicators in East London on Thursday, Dr Mlungisi Cele, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI), said various forms of innovation existed in the country, particularly in rural areas, but that these were not integrated into the mainstream.

While innovation could help solve problems and improve service delivery, particularly in municipalities, Dr Cele said it was important to ensure that decisions considered the impact on the environment, were sustainable and included everyone in society.

Dr Cele said that innovation was key to addressing socio-economic challenges such as unemployment, HIV/Aids and income inequality, and that innovation in turn depended on a robust STI policy based on reliable data.

"Many people in South Africa are still excluded from participating in the economy, particularly women and young people," said Dr Cele, urging the province to identify its strengths, new sources of growth and what it could achieve.

The roadshow, attended by policy makers, academics, senior government officials and representatives from small business in the Eastern Cape, is used by NACI to share the South African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators Report.

The second annual STI Indicators Report, released in July 2019, raises some key concerns, including that South Africa has lost its competitive advantage in terms of medium-technology exports when compared to the average of upper to middle-income countries.

According to the report, while the Eastern Cape is the third-largest province in terms of population, it lags behind when it comes to contribution to the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

Rhodes University accounted for a large proportion of the province's research and development expenditure (14% in 2016/17), followed by Nelson Mandela University (13%) and the University of Fort Hare (11%). However, these institutions have not yet realised their full entrepreneurial potential.

The East London Industrial Development Zone (ELIDZ) formed the ideal backdrop to the roadshow. The facility was established by the government in 2002 in response to the need for a robust catalyst for economic development and industrial diversification in the country.

One of its initiatives, the Science and Technology Park (STP), was designed to support the incubation of innovative, high-growth knowledge and technology-based businesses. Ludwe Macingwane, Operations Manager at the STP, said their mandate was to coordinate innovation initiatives by stimulating the flow of knowledge between institutions of higher learning, industry and communities.

Its services include 3D printing and rapid prototyping, laboratory analysis, renewable energy simulation, data science learning and incubation. "The Park is well established, offering start-up assistance for students and local people to become fully fledged businesses," Macingwane said.

From time to time, the ELIDZ arranges sector-based sessions that have yielded positive results in the space of advanced and automotive manufacturing. "These sessions are dedicated to aligning what is required by both industry and institutions of higher learning, in order to enable production of the skills required by the market."

Ayanda Ntsho, a chartered accountant at Yekani Technologies, said it was time for South Africa to start creating capacity and stop importing expensive products that could have been produced locally and affordably.

Yekani Technologies has set up a R1 billion factory covering 28 000 square metres at the ELIDZ, where it is producing tablets, laptops and smartphones. The company supplies printed circuit boards used in tablets in some schools in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

"These components are built by young people employed by Yekani as part of skills development and our response to the fourth industrial revolution," Ntsho said. "As long as we keep on exporting raw material, we will continue depriving young people of opportunities to learn new skills and will not be able to respond to the fourth industrial revolution."

Source: Department: Science and Technology