In the week of 11th to 16th March 2013, I was in Botswana. This was my first time in Gaborone, Botswana and I must say Botswana has been one of my best African experiences around Africa visits after Cape Town, South Africa.
One of the things that really struck me was the huge role that the government of Botswana has played in capitalizing and supporting the economy. The government has invested at large in the ICT sector by focusing on infrastructure. They have invested 57 acres of land, for development of a Science Park, the heart of this being the Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH). Botswana innovation Hub is a public Hub under the Ministry of Infrastructure that is meant to focus on innovation.
Below are the reasons of what I think ails technological innovation in Botswana:
The government has invested fibre in different strategic areas of the country. The ISPs and telecoms have rolled out under sea fibres. However, the internet is slow, and this in turn hurts innovation. Internet is the heartbeat of accelerating innovation but with the current internet speeds in Botswana, and specifically in Gaborone; I do not see how technological innovations will be nurtured. The low internet penetration has also attributed to a very small number of people owning smartphones. The internet bandwidth and usage needs to be increased and fastened to act as an engine of generating local content that will drive data driven applications.
No real innovation spaces for the developer community:
After going to different places to try find the developer community, I realized they do exist. However, there is no central place where they meet to exchange ideas and collaborate with others in developing innovative products for the local market. After visiting graduates from the University of Botswana, it was clear from their conversations that they are filled with immense passion and are hungry for a platform where they could get shared resources and like minded individuals to form teams to develop their ideas to validated concepts that could germinate to innovative products. The industry players felt the local developer community, was invisible if at all it existed. For the local developers they wanted to see and be made aware of more ‘iHubs’ in Botswana. For now, they will sit back and wait for white collar jobs. These same youth add to the big bracket of unemployed graduates in Botswana. According to the 2011 Unicef Report, unemployment is high among young people 20-24 years at 34% and females at 21%.
Over-reliance on Diamond mining:
According to the Global Innovation Index (GII) of 2012 , Botswana is ranked behind Africa’s best in innovation Index. Mauritius (49/141), South Africa (54/ 141) with Botswana ranked at position 85/141 countries. Despite Botswana being highly ranked, technological innovation is only heavily felt in the diamond-mining sector. The country is currently heavily dependent on diamond mining, which accounts for more than one-third of GDP, 70-80% of export earnings and 50% government’s revenues. The over-reliance on diamonds has its implications. It can lead to the to non-diversification and innovation of the other key sectors in the economy, high unemployment rates among the youth and lack of local capacity to ensure diversification and skilled labor in other areas.
I was shocked to learn that education in Botswana is paid for by the government all the way to higher education. In addition, all the students are given a stipend of 1400-1800 pula (USD 200-260) every month. With the small population then the concept of free education is possible to sustain in the short term. But on the other hand, it has implication on the students after they graduate. The graduates are not groomed to be independent and made to think outside the box hence most run for white collar jobs after they graduate. The tertiary education system is not practical enough to produce skilled graduates who are ready for the market.
For the few developers who I met and were well established, they mentioned that they feel that the government does not perceive local technological innovations as powerful and they would rather import foreign solutions and bring private experts or individual consultants to advise and develop the solutions. This leaves the local developers with no access to the market for their products and the fact that the market is small they tend to focus on developing for other regional and global markets that are bigger.
Small local developer capacity:
Most of the graduates further their education abroad. The good thing is that most of them do come back to build the economy of their country with their acquired skills. But in the period of time they are gone there is less local capacity left. Furthermore the community of developers is still immature in skills set and capacity that sometimes makes it hard for business opportunities to reach them due to bureaucracy.
From what I saw, there is huge potential for an innovation Hub to work well in Botswana. A hub that can act as a platform for the youth to innovate for both the local and global industries. The fact that the government is already investing a lot in the ICT sector and different leading internet providers such as Mascom are seen to set up infrastructure and fibre that goes through South Africa is a good sign. The small population also gives Botswana an upper hand, to empower the marginal community with gadgets and tap in technological innovative solutions for everyone. It also becomes easier to set up ICT hubs that mobilize the local developer community by engaging them in events and tech related activities.
The Botswana science park, which is similar to the Konza City concept is meant to be up and running by 2016. This park is meant to be the platform for driving technological innovations, but before its done, Botswana Innovation Hub need to start thinking of ways to start mobilizing the developer community e.g. having a pre-incubation centre that allows the graduates to meet and practice the spirit of open innovation. Also need for partnerships by linking with the academia e.g. University of Botswana, a leading national university, that has called upon Industry to partner with the university to accelerate the development of promising technologies and promote their commercialization to help in diversifying of the economy. Having public-private partnerships will help bridge the gap by supporting and promoting the sustainability of technology innovation in the country.