Technology is a key factor in improving productivity and efficiency in the utilization of natural resources and for improving human well-being.

Technology affects human development in two important ways (UN Millennium Project 2005b). First, innovation can directly increase the ability of existing science, technology and innovation programmes to reduce poverty and expand human capabilities, as is evident through technological innovations in public health, agriculture, energy use, and ICT. Second, technology can indirectly affect human well-being by enhancing productivity and increasing economic growth and incomes through, among other things, promoting economic growth.

The adoption of technologies for more efficient and cleaner production activities, as well as for value-adding activities by small entrepreneurs, is severely constrained by the lack of adequate income as well as inadequate information. Ensuring the uptake of technologies will thus need multidimensional responses that improve the overall capabilities of people.

Unfortunately, local development of technology in Africa related to natural resources has been very slow, leading to over-reliance on technology developed elsewhere (FAO 2003). In most cases, this technology is linked to FDI, with a principal focus on maximizing profits. The development of appropriate technologies that address African priorities and that are responsive to local conditions has not been a focus of research. Nevertheless, new technologies, developed globally, particularly in the areas of ICT, biotechnology (or genomics), nanotechnology, materials science, and spatial information technology potentially offer important opportunities for development, improving human well-being and sustainable environmental management (UN Millennium Project 2005b).

Increasingly, African countries are exploring the opportunities and risks posed by these new technologies. Chapter 9: Genetically Modified Crops, for example, considers the diverse claims made about opportunities for development of biotechnology. Many African countries recognize the value of ICT, not only for stimulating the economy, but also for environmental management. Some African countries are investing in the application of ICT for planning, management and monitoring of environmental resources. Ghana, for instance, is using ICT to facilitate the mainstreaming of environment in its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) and development plans in its district assemblies. A novel aspect of this ICT application is the intricate networking that involves the presidency, the national parliament, the ministry of finance, ministry of local government, and the national development and planning commission: this enhances access and utilization of a common pool of information for decision making (Opio-Odongo and Woodsworth 2004).

In most African countries there is relatively low investment in research activities as a percentage of GDP. However, research is important for improving responses and enhancing capabilities and thus this needs to be urgently addressed through the development of partnerships, stable investment environments, and legal and policy frameworks that provide for fair and equitable intellectual property rights. Research into various environmental goods and services, such as wetlands and forest lands, can make a difference in how they are used and the extent to which value is added to them. Apart from research based on modern knowledge, the value of traditional or indigenous knowledge needs to be acknowledged within Africa. There are various initiatives, particularly in the NGO sector, which seek to apply this knowledge to product development. In the pharmaceutical and cosmetic sector, industry has had a keen interest in how to use this knowledge, as shown in Box 8. The existing genetic and intellectual property regimes do not offer sufficient protection of these assets, thus allowing the benefits associated with their use to be externalized.

Increased investment in research by Africa will need to be complemented by a greater global commitment to the transfer of technology and the more equitable sharing of the benefits associated with this.

Box 8: Using traditional knowledge for diet drug development
Hoodia gordonii (hoodia) is a cactus plant found in Southern Africa. The San people of the Kalahari, one of the world’s oldest indigenous peoples, are reputed to have been eating the hoodia plant for thousands of years, to stave off hunger during long hunting trips. The South African Council on Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) identified the P57 substance in the plant, a group of steroidal glycosides, which is an active appetite suppressant. Given high levels of obesity, particularly in developed countries, there has been considerable interest in the potential economic value of this plant.
   In 1995, a patent application was filed in Europe, and on 27 January 2005 the patent was granted in an appeal of the European court. In 1997, the CSIR licensed the UK-based Phytopharm, which in turn licensed drug giant Pfizer the following year, for P57 development and global marketing. Unilever has since acquired the rights to develop and market hoodia as an ingredient in its weight-loss products,
   The South African San Council, set up in November 2001 and representing the Khomani, the Xun and the Khwe, demanded recognition of their knowledge and a share of benefits arising from product development. After protracted negotiations – spanning three years – a benefit sharing agreement was reached in 2004 between the South African San Council and CSIR. The CSIR will pay the San 8 per cent of milestone payments made by its licensee, Phytopharm, during the drug’s clinical development over the next three to four years. The San could earn 6 per cent of all royalties if and when the drug is marketed, possibly in 2008. Establishing this agreement faced various challenges:
  • Traditional knowledge, being community-owned and handed down through generations, clashes with international property rights, which view knowledge as owned by an individual or a company.
  • Indigenous knowledge is often held by communities who live in different countries. In this case, the San Councils of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Angola will share the monies in percentages to be decided at their next general meeting.
  • Hoodia gordonii (hoodia).
    Hoodia gordonii (hoodia).
    Source: E. Powell

    Income will go into a San Hoodia Benefit Trust set up by the CSIR and the San. The Trust includes representatives of the CSIR, the regional San Councils, the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA), and an observer from the South African Department of Science and Technology.