Improving research and innovation has been identified as key in transforming the country's economy from mineral- led to knowledge led. With Botswana's competence in research and development in terms of investment, private sector involvement and human resource rated very low, government has tasked the Botswana Institute of Technology, Research and Innovation (BITRI). Business Week correspondent KEIKANTSE LESEMELA meets BITRI chief executive, Nelson Torto as he explains the efforts in driving innovation and research.
BusinessWeek: How does BITRI foster research and innovation?
Torto: At BITRI, we conduct needs-based technology research that provides sustainable innovative solutions through co-creation and collaboration. Because we are a research organisation for Botswana we are driven by the values of Batswana and thus through a value gap analysis approach, we are able to identify areas of need. We believe in working together with Batswana to create products as well as linking up with other key players in the technology research domain so as to enhance our efforts.
BusinessWeek: What initiatives does BITRI have this year?
Torto: Because we have to generate intellectual property from our research output as well as protect our structured growth as an organisation, we feel obliged not to always talk about specifics of our research. That notwithstanding, some of our efforts will be focused on solar based technologies, mobile applications, optimisation of building materials, providing at site/in the house drinking water technologies, mineral beneficiation; just to mention a few.
BusinessWeek: What might be the cause of the low involvement by the private sector in research?
Torto: Well, the reasons are probably only true in the words of the private sector. By the dynamic nature of research, one finds that there is never enough human resource. America has acknowledged that fact as it continues to tap from other countries so as to sustain its research efforts.
BusinessWeek: How do you think this problem can be solved?
Torto: Given that we are a very small nation from a number perspective, we will not entirely meet our research needs. However, those mandated with research and training needs should be encouraged to grow their own timber. Research benefits from training researchers in their own environment and that should go a long way in addressing the gaps.
BusinessWeek: Do you think Government is doing enough to improve research, innovation and technology?
Torto: Yes. One has to give the government some credit. Granted that there is no animal called government; it calls for efforts from everyone who understands the dynamics of research and innovation to woo across those who are still in doubt of its importance.
There are bigger economies in Africa that would not be as ambitious as the Botswana government as demonstrated by the recent establishment of Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH), Botswana International
I think what is necessary going forward is to take a step beyond provision of infrastructure, as the research activities require bigger budgets than currently available. With appropriate investment in research, technology and innovation, I see a Botswana that is able to create equal opportunities for its citizen.
BusinessWeek: Do you think the youth are participating enough in research and innovation?
Torto: From a research perspective, a youth would be referring to a fresh PhD graduate. In Botswana, probably almost all our PhDs are absorbed either in research organisations or at universities where they are expected to conduct research.
BusinessWeek: Are there any other ways to motivate the youth to take part in research and innovation?
Torto: At the core of what we do is material. We need to be able to manipulate material and evaluate by all available means our ability to effectively transform it into products. However to complete the process, it might be necessary to have facilities that can enable the youth to produce prototypes at a minimal cost. Such a facility could include what are normally referred to as CNC (computer numeric control) Machines that have attributes of Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) as well as provision of 3D printers as these would transform some of the ideas into objects that can convince the investors.
If you look at the growth of the local music industry, one can easily attribute it to availability of facilities to record music ideas/composition. An equivalent resource should motivate and enhance opportunities for the graduates. The Institute has also, through private sector participation, established a Centre for Coal Studies with a view of contributing towards coal beneficiation. Furthermore, BITRI continues to sensitise Government departments on the solar driven technology and has demonstrated its use in Gaborone, Ghanzi and Southern Kgalagadi districts. All these are meant to give Botswana a competitive edge by increasing value addition to local products.
BusinessWeek: How much has been allocated to research and innovation development this year?
Torto: At BITRI, the concern is not about how much do we have this year; we are really interested in having sustained funding to ensure that we meet our objectives.