Calibrating technology to tackle sustainable development challenges in Africa

11 December 2020

Science, technology, and innovation set to boost post COVID-19 recovery as the continent seeks to tap its energy and agricultural sectors as tools for development and growth with UNCTAD’s help.

Wind farm Africa agriculture

Technology can provide solutions to many development problems and new and emerging technologies can improve access to modern energy services and enhance agricultural productivity and livelihoods.

But a deeper understanding of the full spectrum of change that these technologies can unleash across different socio-economic contexts, particularly in developing countries is needed.

Enter UNCTAD, which this week at the annual Science Forum in Pretoria, South Africa, announced a new technology assessment project it aims to roll out in key African countries.

The project focuses in on the high potential yield agricultural and energy sectors.

“The project will support policymakers and other stakeholders in target countries in Africa to design and implement a technology assessment exercise in the two sectors, and to utilize technologies as catalysts for sustainable development,” said UNCTAD’s logistics and technology director, Shamika N. Sirimanne.

Technology assessments are critical for African countries as many are unaware of their capabilities to adopt and adapt technologies for addressing development objectives. Sharing experiences and lessons learned will also be important so African countries can benefit from a networked learning effect.

UNCTAD believes projects of this kind contribute significantly to creating pathways to achieving and making progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially in developing countries,

Combatting food and energy insecurity

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the magnitude of food and energy insecurity that prevails for many people in Africa. Technology assessments can help build resilience to, and recovery from, future emergencies by enabling developing countries to determine sustainable ways of embedding technological solutions.

“We are only beginning to realize the damage that has been inflicted this year to our efforts in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” Ms. Sirimanne said. “With already vulnerable health systems, the African region is also susceptible to the double whammy of energy insecurity and food insecurity.”

In such a time of severe socio-economic constraints, the strategic relevance of the energy sector in powering people’s daily lives becomes ever clearer. But for the 600 million Africans still without electricity, they have been unable to adapt to the new normal under the coronavirus pandemic restrictions, unable to be connected to the Internet, and participate in socio-economic life, for which access to electricity is a fundamental pre-requisite.

“In effect, the pandemic has exposed the many inequalities and gaps that need to be urgently closed,” Ms. Sirimanne said.

Moreover, the pandemic came at a time when food security and food systems were already under strain across Africa. For example, in East Africa, people are facing a “triple menace” of mutually exacerbating disasters, as ongoing heavy rain hampers attempts to deal with the worst locust crisis in decades, which threatens crops heading into the harvest period and all amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

A multilateral approach to technology assessment

At a parallel session of the virtual Science Forum South Africa 2020, Ms. Sirimanne, explained that “the project will support countries in considering appropriate methodologies for conducting technology assessments to solve sustainable development challenges in a manner that is constructive and inclusive of community-level participation, including women and marginalized groups.”

“We have an opportunity to shape a recovery plan to build back better to ensure that the world is cleaner, greener, healthier, and less unequal,” she added. “And I am hopeful that this project will contribute to our accelerated efforts to achieve meaningful progress in the Decade of Action towards 2030.”

As very few capacity-building workshops on technology assessment are held on the African continent, this will be one of the defining outcomes that the UNCTAD project will address. A series of workshops and advisory sessions on capacity building will support the development of action plans in each target country.

South Africa is one of the initial countries to participate in the project. Ms. Mmampei Chaba of the Department of Science and Innovation expressed her appreciation for the timely launch of the project.

“In South Africa, we are still struggling to attain basic service provision for the whole of society,” she said. “Inequality in areas such as electricity access is a problem. Electricity is largely produced from coal and is unaffordable to many. We hope that a technology assessment will enable us to determine how to adopt new technologies to ensure clean and affordable energy for all.”

UNCTAD will serve as the lead entity in the project implementation with substantive and logistical support from UNEP, FAO, UNECA, and UNDP. The project will commence in early 2021.