By Metohuey Adoglo
Fostering connections between knowledge, innovation, and industry is crucial for driving economic growth and addressing pressing challenges in Africa. Dr. Erick Tambo, a prominent researcher in the field, has been at the forefront of leading this conversation.
By working to bring universities and the technology ecosystem closer together, Dr. Tambo aims to create an enabling environment that produces more innovators. His efforts focus on contextualizing the curriculum, integrating industry partnerships, and fostering deep frugal innovation. Through these initiatives, Dr. Tambo is actively driving the transformation of Africa’s innovation landscape.
Dreams Talks: What inspired you to take this Career path?
Dr. Erick Tambo: I believe it’s a combination of factors that have influenced my career path. My parents have played a significant role in shaping my interest in research and innovation. My mother, who was a teacher, instilled in me a sense of community and a love for learning. Meanwhile, my father, a computer scientist, sparked my curiosity in technology. Growing up in such an environment, it was natural for me to pursue a career as a research scientist. I have always felt a desire to contribute to the development of my continent and address its challenges. I see research as the most appropriate way to make a meaningful impact and improve living standards while promoting economic growth. I consider myself an activist scientist, using my skills and knowledge to effect positive change. So, this motivation has been the driving force behind my discoveries.
— Africanian News (@africaniannews) September 4, 2023
Dreams Talks: What measures are being taken in other African countries to promote research and innovation, and how is it contributing to their economic growth?
Dr. Erick Tambo: When we talk about research and innovation and its impact on the economy, we can look at countries like the U.S. as an example. Statistics show that research and innovation contribute around 50% of the GDP in the U.S. The success of companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook demonstrates the significant role that research and innovation play in boosting a country’s GDP. Similarly, in Africa, countries like South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, and Rwanda, which have embraced research and innovation, have experienced notable economic growth. There is a clear correlation between research, innovation, and economic development.
Dreams Talks: What strategies or initiatives are being implemented to overcome the challenges of inadequate funding, infrastructure, and human resources in research and innovation in Africa?
Dr. Erick Tambo: Speaking of challenges, there are several obstacles that need to be addressed. One major challenge is inadequate infrastructure and insufficient funding. The level of funding allocated to research and innovation is often linked to a country’s GDP. Many African countries struggle to allocate sufficient funding for research institutions and innovators. Moreover, the lack of appropriate infrastructure, such as advanced labs for technologies like nanotechnology and genetic modification, hinders progress in these areas. These challenges are interconnected, as the lack of funding affects infrastructure development and human resources. Another issue is the aging staff in research institutions, compounded by brain drain due to migration. This chain reaction creates a scarcity of human resources for driving research and innovation.
Dreams Talks: How can African countries promote and facilitate international collaboration and knowledge transfer among scientists to overcome the challenges of brain drain and inadequate resources in research and innovation?
Dr. Erick Tambo: Despite these challenges, there are viable solutions. The advancement of information and communication technologies offers opportunities for distributed research, virtual collaboration, and brain circulation. Technologies can be leveraged to enable researchers abroad to contribute to their home countries. Cooperation and mobility among scientists can also facilitate knowledge transfer. Even when someone migrates, they can still work on problems related to their home continent and contribute their skills and expertise. So, there are possibilities for overcoming these challenges.
Dreams Talks: How can universities in Africa effectively bridge the gap between quick problem-solving innovation and in-depth knowledge-based research to ensure the scalability, replication, and protection of knowledge-based products in the innovation ecosystem?
Dr. Erick Tambo: When we examine the research and innovation landscape in Africa, we often focus on countries like South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt, which have well-established infrastructures and strong research and innovation ecosystems. Universities in these countries, along with partnerships between industry and academia, contribute significantly to research and development. However, if we broaden our perspective, we find that innovation is also happening within universities, particularly in technology-related fields. Take the example of Kenya and the M-Pesa revolution, which demonstrated how mobile technology can drive the development of various services. However, much of the innovation we see is what I call “quick innovation” based on problem-solving rather than in-depth knowledge. This can lead to duplication of efforts and limited scalability. To address this, universities and tech companies need to bridge the gap and integrate research more effectively. Universities should create specialized units that reflect on processes and provide knowledge to support market-driven innovation. By integrating research into the innovation ecosystem, we can produce knowledge-based products that are easily replicated, scaled, and protected.
Dreams Talks: How has the integration of practical entrepreneurial experiences into the university curriculum, such as internships, specialized courses, and industry partnerships, contributed to bridging the gap between research, innovation, and technology in African Universities ?
Dr. Erick Tambo: Over the past 12 years, I have dedicated myself to addressing the challenge of siloed fields of technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship in Africa. Leading research groups like Act for Death, I witnessed the rise of the mobile revolution and recognized the need to bring these fields closer together. As a research coordinator at the Pan-African University, I worked on a flagship program of the African Union to create innovators and foster an innovation-driven culture within the university.
Our approach involved integrating practical entrepreneurial experiences into the curriculum, such as internships, specialized courses, and master’s theses combined with industry partnerships. By going beyond theory and exposing students to real-world challenges, we aimed to bridge the gap between research, innovation, and technology.
Another important aspect was involving the private sector in curriculum design. We collaborated with chambers of commerce and industry experts to ensure courses aligned with market needs. Additionally, practitioners from the private sector were invited to share their practical knowledge with students.
To provide hands-on experience, we facilitated externships and collaborations with enterprises, allowing students to tackle real industry problems. Transfer offices within universities supported the commercialization of research findings, especially when linked to practical issues.
Creating technology parks and integrating universities into digital-focused environments further strengthened the academia-industry connection. By combining curriculum design, internships, industry collaboration, and transfer offices, we aimed to create an ecosystem empowering students to effectively deploy their solutions.
My work aims to break down barriers and foster a culture of innovation within African universities. Through practical integration, private sector collaboration, and hands-on learning, we can bridge the gap and drive impactful, scalable innovations.
Dreams Talks: As a researcher working towards bridging the gap between universities and the technology ecosystem, what specific projects or activities have you been involved in to create an enabling environment for producing more innovators?
Dr. Erick Tambo: Personally, I have been contributing to the development of this ecosystem by working towards bringing the university and the technology ecosystem closer together. I have been involved in various projects and activities aimed at creating an enabling environment for producing more innovators. However, there is still a long way to go, especially in French-speaking countries where universities often lag behind in terms of relevance and industry integration.
Contextualizing the curriculum to address local problems and linking it to industry, innovation, and entrepreneurship is a significant challenge. Currently, we see building blocks being established, but they often operate in isolation. The innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem is growing, with the presence of business angel associations, incubators, and venture capitalists. However, there is a need for a middle ground that actively fosters the connection between knowledge, innovation, and industry.
This will facilitate the development of deep frugal innovation that builds on research and addresses key challenges. By creating this cohesive environment, we can move beyond quick innovation and make more significant contributions to solving critical problems such as electrification and sanitation.