Researchers and innovators all around the world have been hard at work in coming up with solutions to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Prominent among these efforts are contact tracing enabled by mobile phone data, rapid testing with antibodies and accelerated development programmes for viable vaccine candidates.
Though developments from Europe and the US may have dominated the headlines, Africa has not been missing in the action in developing homegrown innovations.
Research & Development across Africa
It is, however, important to provide some background on the state of research, development and innovation on the continent.
Africa has a growing but relatively smaller middle class with lower purchasing power by comparison to the world’s developed markets. This, among several other constraints such as poor distribution networks and weak intellectual property enforcement have inhibited private sector funding of research and innovation.
Several companies operating in sub-Saharan Africa have come to rely on licensing, importing to resell, partnership for distribution, and local customisation of foreign innovations while building operational advantages in their local target markets. It is therefore not surprising that no African company is represented on the list of worlds’ 1000 largest corporate R&D spenders, neither is any African country represented in the top 50 for research and development expenditure by percentage of GDP in 2018.
In spite of these realities, there has not been a shortage of research and development efforts on the continent in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Reverse innovation from resource constraints
Innovators are empowered to do more as more resources become available. But in resource-constrained environments, there is a reversal to this logic: innovators have to think of doing more with less.
That in turn opens up opportunities for a different type of innovation. Reverse innovation, popularised by Professor Vijay Govindarajan, is the creation of high performing and low-cost products in developing countries which can also serve markets in rich countries.
Reverse innovation has been demonstrated in Africa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This can be seen in the development of a $1 diagnostic test for COVID-19 with results in 10 minutes by Senegal-based DiaTropix and UK-based Mologic. Plans for manufacturing the diagnostic kits are on the way in both Senegal for Africa and the US for Europe.
The Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) has also developed a new test that is cheaper than other (more commonly used) PCR tests.
This new test can give results in less than 40 minutes using a mobile machine that can be operated by low-skilled personnel with minimal training.
2. Leverage of Institutional Capacity
Without the financial support of companies with large R&D budgets, much of the innovation that has cropped up across the continent is made possible through the active participation of academic and research institutions and public health agencies. For example, the diagnostic kit co-developed by Senegal’s DiaTropix is in collaboration with the Pasteur Institute in Dakar. The institute put into use its experience with AIDS and Ebola.
Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of science and technology (KNUST) also worked with a diagnostic testing startup to develop a rapid test that detects COVID-19 antibodies within 15 to 20 minutes.
It could be argued that these non-private institutions and agencies were established to foster an environment of innovation, whereas private firms have to firstly consider business interests ahead of their R&D pursuits.
Africa’s academic and research institutions are increasingly proving themselves to be a treasure-trove for innovation on the continent during the pandemic and have the potential to remain so in a post-COVID world.
3. Collaboration for combined capabilities
The ability of institutions and researchers to collaborate provides cross-disciplinary expertise and a network of resources that cannot be accessed while working in solo.
This point is much more important in such countries where rarely does a single company or institution have highly developed networks. Such collaboration saw Nigeria emerge as the first country in Africa to report the genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 from its first confirmed case of COVID-19.
The sequencing was achieved through collaboration led by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) with the participation of medical research centres in private and public universities, the Centre for Human Virology and Genomics at the Nation’s Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), and the state’s ministry of Health Bio-Bank facility.
This has given Nigeria a lead in the development of a potential vaccine candidate currently at a pre-clinical stage. This vaccine development programme itself is an effort of researchers distributed across several Nigerian universities.
4. A Huge potential for academia-industry partnerships
The smaller budgets of African companies on R&D and minimal revenue return from new product development, when compared to their global counterparts, has discouraged the growth of academia-industry partnerships.
The proven rewards of such partnerships extend beyond product innovation to include solving industry problems for process and operational improvements, while also exposing academia to industry-relevant research areas.
Partnerships with the industry also provide academic and research institutions opportunities to validate their innovations in the market and eventually commercialise their intellectual property.
The Pasteur Institute in Dakar’s DiaTropix laboratory partnership with the UK’s Mologic for the co-development of diagnostic test kits, is proof of the huge potential when industry and academia work together at a global scale.
The rise of the academic entrepreneurs also provides another dimension to academia-industry partnerships across the continent. For example, Oladipo Kolawole of Adeleke University leads a vaccine candidate development research team in Nigeria is also the founder of Helix Biogen Consult, based in Ogbomoso, Nigeria.
But Kolawole has expressed difficulty in confirming local funding for research, but has received more interest in collaboration from India and the US.
In a Post-COVID-19 world
The spotlight COVID-19 has put on African innovation is more proof that Africa has the capacity and talent to develop homegrown solutions and contribute to global efforts.
However, taking these innovations beyond the walls of the institutions from which they are being developed requires private and public sector funding with patient capital, industry partnerships for commercialisation opportunities, and bold companies that are ready to incorporate reverse innovation into their product development strategies.
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