Research-based Innovation in Africa

The African continent boasts many riches: 60% of the world’s arable lands, 30% of the mineral reserves and a young population. But it also shoulders 25% of the global disease burden and accounts for only 3% of global GDP, according to a 2022 Brookings report.

When it comes to research and innovation, the stats are even more dire. Africa accounts for only 2% of the world’s research output, 1.3% of research spending and only .1% of all patents, as of 2022. 

Among those trying to change such statistics is Marcia Mkansi, a professor of operations and supply chain management at the University of South Africa. In her Feb. 15 Distinguished Lecture, Mkansi talked about increasing research-based innovation across the continent. 

“The question is, what is the position of the university and academics in this whole situation?” Mkansi asked. “How do we reposition ourselves in such a manner that we play a more transformational role in reducing the burden of disease, unemployment and poverty in Africa?”

In her talk, Mkansi highlighted the deep disparity between research outputs and innovations in Africa. She said in 2019 alone, an aggregate of 26 public universities in South Africa produced more than 17,000 research outputs that were accredited and approved by the Department of Higher Education. In comparison, those same universities produced only 145 innovations that year.

“If you compare what we produce in terms of research versus innovations, it is extremely low,” said Mkansi.

Universities can help address the imbalance through policy changes related to intellectual property and reduced workloads, she noted. But scholars need not wait on changes at the university level to translate their research passions into innovations.

From PhD thesis to small startup

A prolific innovator herself, Mkansi shared her personal experiences in advancing research-based innovation and empowering graduate students to be the creators of tomorrow. Whether at an individual or organizational level, innovations can generate new income streams through grants and licensing deals, she noted. 

“When you pursue innovative projects, you can apply for attractive grants that can help you measure the impact,” she said. “For a university, it can be licensed to companies, therefore creating new jobs and new avenues of creating income and building wealth for the country.”

One of the innovative initiatives Mkansi has spearheaded is the development of software to facilitate efficient delivery of malaria drugs. Malaria has been embedded in Africa for decades and accounts for hundreds of thousands of deaths annually. 

“We have the drugs,” Mkansi said. “The challenge is access to that medicine.”

A clinic in one rural village may have an overstock, she explained, while the clinic in the next village is under-stocked. But existing systems for tracking the availability of the drugs are expensive. If the clinics can’t afford the tracking system, the understocked clinic won’t know to send patients to the overstocked clinic in the next village. 

Collaborating with one of her PhD students from Uganda, Mkansi conducted a four-year study on supply chain coordination for the antimalarial drug. She then developed a flowchart based on the study findings and created a prototype mobile app that records, monitors and updates stock levels. 

The app has attracted interest from a business that manufactures antimalarial products, African Applied Chemicals. This industry partner is now seeking a license with the World Health Organization to supply the mobile app throughout Africa.

“And the interesting thing is, this small startup comes from a university, comes from somebody who just finished his PhD,” said Mkansi. “So, you can see things starting to happen. 

We have not yet changed the entire Africa, but we can see significant milestones in what we have started so far.” 

A research philosophy app

Mkansi also highlighted the Research Methods Index software as another innovation product she has developed. This one came from her own experience as a doctoral student. 

She realized that her fellow students struggled to understand research paradigms and philosophy and how they shape research methods. So she created a “match-making” assessment tool for scholars. 

The tool helps students choose an appropriate research method for their dissertation. It can also match them with a supervisor who shares their philosophy. 

Mkansi won a multimillion grant to develop the app and recruited software engineers to work with a team of students on the project. The software has attracted interest well beyond academia.

“We have been contacted by psychologists who want to use this for marriage evaluation counseling, and some want to use it for dating,” said Mkansi. “Some want to use it to help understand conflict resolution. That is way beyond what we initially conceptualized.”

The key to becoming an innovator, Mkansi noted, is to go beyond conducting a research study and publishing the output. 

“You go further to say, ‘Based on the challenge that I’ve observed, what solution can work? Instead of recommending the solution, what can I do to help resolve this problem that I’ve seen on the ground?’”

Mkansi created two other innovations based on her PhD thesis. One is an app that enables efficient delivery of online grocery orders using drivers already on the road. The other one grants carbon credits to users based on their sustainable choice of transportation and then allows them to sell those credits or use them for a tax credit. 

“That’s just one example of how we are using research to contribute toward these major challenges,” said Mkansi. 

Not all innovations are technology-based, Mkansi pointed out. She cited the example of a friend who created products made with mopani, an edible worm she harvested and ate during her childhood in a small South African Limpopo village.

“That is an example of how innovation doesn’t have to be a mobile application,” Mkansi said. “It could be anything from food to paintings to the things we take for granted. Let your research be the innovation that Africa and the world needs tomorrow.”

About the speaker:

Marcia Mkansi is head of research, post-graduate studies, innovation and commercialization for the College of Economics and Management Sciences at the University of South Africa. She also is a prolific innovator, with a focus on societal research and human capital development.

In 2021, a mobile app she developed to track malaria drug stocks reached the semi-finals of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology global solver challenge.

The prior year, her Research Methods Index innovation earned second place in the European Conference on Research Methodology for Business and Management Studies. The index helps graduate students select a best-fit research framework based on their attributes, philosophies and paradigms.

Also in 2020, she was named “Most Prolific Innovator Over the Past Five Years” at her university. She made six disclosures in that period, mostly for software-related innovations intended to improve supply and distribution networks.

Mkansi holds a PhD in supply chain management and electronic business from the University of Bolton in the U.K.