Saturday, September 26, 2020

BIH must help the nation find cure for the country’s Covid-19 economic fractures

Many questions have been asked about some of the government parastatals, state owned enterprises and their sister agencies. The main question that keeps coming back though is whether these entities are producing any tangible outcome within their core mandates or perhaps some of them are just in existence because we are not ‘innovative’ enough as a nation.

In a recent discussion with one progressive mind, the question of the meaning of the word “innovation” came up.  That conversation prompted me to write this commentary piece. I want to submit that too often in the developing world when we speak about innovation most our people tend to think of it as a new gadget or to mean some form of technology in some way. But is that what innovation is all about?

Perhaps in an attempt to answer this question as a nation, and before we even bring it closer to home, we need to re-visit the literature on the originality and meaning of the word ‘innovation’.

The literature shows that “innovation” was initially a derogatory word. The word “novation” appears in many legal texts as a term used to refer to ‘renewing a contract’ in the 13th century. So in other words, term, “novation” means new, as in a new version of a contract which was the case at the time. Fast forward to the 16th-century religious environment, the term gathered negative associations thrown at people who sought to rewrite religious texts. Innovators were jailed and even put to death. So how did we get where we are now, where innovation is seen as a positive term? Available literature shows that during the Industrial Revolution, the idea of innovation quickly became associated with science – that is, the ‘invention’ of new machines and products. This was at a time when many governments, more especially of the countries that we now call developed world, began to emphasize research labs and patents as a source of economic advantage. So, it was during that time when innovators were elevated as positive contributors the economy and most importantly humanity.

Infact history books do show that some years thereafter an influential economist by the name Joseph Schumpeter, arguably the originator of the concepts that led to what we now call “entrepreneurship,” introduced an important distinction between ‘Invention’ and ‘innovation’. Schumpeter argued in his literature that ‘invention’ is the creation of something new (e.g. electricity vehicle), while innovation on the other hand is related to the adoption of that new thing. (product). Before he died, modern day innovator – Steve Jobs put it this way: “innovation is creativity that ships”.

So, the question that comes to mind now is, at what level are our firms in Botswana, the citizenry and most importantly state-owned agencies such as Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH) crafting inventions into constructive changes to rebuild our economy?

At a time when Covid-19 has created for us a tattered economy, can we rely on BIH and citizen entrepreneurs to initiate anything ‘new and/or good?

While one can opt to leave this question to you dear reader to answer, what cannot be stressed enough is the fact that even before Covid-19 the world was quickly turning into one big theatre where “knowledge” has become key to survival. There is no innovation without knowledge. That is why it is vital that government agencies such as BIH take their rightful position to lead our country in its transition from natural resources to Intellectual assets. This is a right call to make because even before Covid-19 arrival in our shore, the foundation of industrial economies had already shifted focus from “natural resources” (like our precious diamonds)  to Intellectual assets (e.g., innovation).

As such, to be competitive, as a nation, and most importantly to heal the economic fractures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic we need to harness our people’s Intellectual capital. Which state organ other than BIH is best placed to take on this task head-on?

Botswana continue to count herself amongst the countries that aspires to have a knowledge economy. This aspiration also formed large part of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP)’s 2019 elections manifesto. Now that the BDP has retained power, it is the right time to join nations around the globe which are pouring billions of monies into increasing their citizens’ “knowledge intensiveness”. We are at point where state entities like BIH through the Innovation Fund should be able to help the people of the land to think critically without favouring their affiliations be it religious, political, or otherwise. If BIH has the capacity to cultivate and develop as many innovators as we need, then we do not even often talk about the darker world of the less privileged citizenry. The people of the land also need to remember that often life begins at the end of a comfort zone.

We are at a point where we cannot sell our precious stones nor can we get the world to come salivate at our flora and fauna including dehorned rhinos. We are at the end of our comfort zone, a point where the social contract of the people of the land and the state needs rejigging. We are at point where none of the people of the land are happy about the growing gap between the rich and the poor except a few blind entrepreneurs and self-proclaimed elites. We are at a point where we cannot be proud of the current set up where a few citizens benefit economically at the expense of everyone else. We know very well that we have been favouring the interests of the Have-s and that the economic injustice of such magnitude is not sustainable.

So, the #Bottomline is that going forward, we shall look up to government agencies such as BIH to help us heal the Covid-19 economic fractures. BIH need to occupy the driver seats in the bus that seeks to reinvent the local economy. That role, if well played by BIH, will help them to avoid the trap of becoming a modern-day depot or state-owned Real Estate agent.

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