Lo­cal in­no­va­tion for lo­cal prob­lems

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

As we learn more about the threat from sub­stan­dard and coun­ter­feit medicines, it is be­com­ing clear that it is a far greater prob­lem than pre­vi­ously thought. It is also a scourge that is most acutely felt in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, where fake and low-qual­ity phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals kill more than 500,000 peo­ple a year and af­fect mil­lions more by con­tribut­ing to the emer­gence of dis­eases that are re­sis­tant to ex­ist­ing treat­ments.

Com­pound­ing the prob­lem is the ap­proach taken by pol­i­cy­mak­ers in the de­vel­op­ing world, who are far more likely to look for so­lu­tions abroad than at home. This short­sight­ed­ness is a grave mis­take that im­pedes in­no­va­tion and progress. When it comes to tack­ling high-im­pact health chal­lenges like the pro­lif­er­a­tion of fake or in­fe­rior drugs, lo­cal so­lu­tions and lo­cal in­no­va­tions are not only likely to be cen­tral to any suc­cess­ful ef­fort; they have the po­ten­tial to pro­vide ben­e­fits that go far be­yond the scope of the orig­i­nal prob­lem.

Through­out the de­vel­op­ing world, but most ev­i­dently in Africa, two groups are in­ter­ested in find­ing tools to com­bat the men­ace of bad drugs. One group, com­pris­ing stu­dents, en­trepreneurs, and re­searchers, seeks so­lu­tions that are lo­cal, orig­i­nal, and tai­lored to the needs of their so­ci­eties. Its mem­bers are quick to share ideas and ea­ger to col­lab­o­rate. While this group has pro­duced some in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions – for ex­am­ple, the Ghana­ian en­tre­pre­neur Bright Sim­mons is us­ing mo­bile tech­nol­ogy to ad­dress prob­lem – many more pas­sion­ate en­trepreneurs must get in­volved.

The other group is made up of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing reg­u­la­tors. They, too, are deeply con­cerned about the scourge of low-qual­ity and fake drugs, but they are re­luc­tant to rely on lo­cal in­no­va­tion. In their minds, the so­lu­tions al­ready ex­ist, in the form of high-end tech­nol­ogy de­signed and de­vel­oped in the world’s rich­est coun­tries. The chal­lenge, for this group, lies in find­ing the fi­nan­cial re­sources to im­port these tech­nolo­gies.

For de­vel­op­ing-coun­try lead­ers, the ef­fort needed to cre­ate an ecosys­tem that sup­ports in­no­va­tion sim­ply ap­pears too great, and the re­turn on in­vest­ment too lit­tle. At count­less con­fer­ences and sym­posia, min­istry of­fi­cials and gov­ern­ment per­son­nel in­sist that funds must be found to i mport so­lu­tions, à la carte. Re­search and in­no­va­tion, or en­gage­ment with lo­cal en­trepreneurs and in­ven­tors, is, un­for­tu­nately, never on the agenda. There sim­ply is lit­tle in­ter­est in tap­ping into the enor­mous pool of in­tel­lect, pas­sion, and energy at home.

Of­fi­cials would be wise to re­con­sider. There is mount­ing ev­i­dence that sus­tain­able so­lu­tions must have lo­cal sup­port and lo­cal part­ners. Rais­ing funds to im­port so­lu­tions from abroad ad­dresses just one part of the chal­lenge.

Many coun­tries lack the re­sources to in­stall, op­er­ate, and main­tain equip­ment that has not been de­signed lo­cally. As mis­use and ne­glect causes equip­ment to mal­func­tion, more funds be­come re­quired or the pro­gram sim­ply dies. Not only does this ap­proach fail to nur­ture lo­cal ecosys­tems of in­no­va­tion, which is deeply frus­trat­ing; it also fails – re­peat­edly – to solve the prob­lem at hand.

While some so­lu­tions in the area of drug-qual­ity test­ing have come from African en­trepreneurs like Sim­mons, such the coun­ter­feit-drug lo­cal in­ven­tors and ex­am­ples are ex­tremely rare, and many are de­vel­oped in the di­as­pora with the sup­port of or­ga­ni­za­tions from out­side the re­gion. For the most part, such ini­tia­tives never en­gage lo­cal stu­dents. Lo­cal cur­ric­ula do not fo­cus on lo­cal chal­lenges or pro­mote lo­cal in­no­va­tion.

And yet lo­cal tal­ent is crit­i­cal for so­lu­tions that are both orig­i­nal and sus­tain­able. In­deed, by nur­tur­ing an in­clu­sive cul­ture of re­search, lo­cal in­no­va­tion has the po­ten­tial to pro­vide ben­e­fits that ex­tend far be­yond the spe­cific prob­lem that is be­ing ad­dressed.

Nur­tur­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of un­der­rep­re­sented groups and cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for ed­u­ca­tion and learn­ing not only cre­ates good­will and pro­motes trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity. Build­ing a sta­ble foun­da­tion for fu­ture re­search also en­ables more pro­duc­tive public-pri­vate part­ner­ships and stronger links be­tween academia and do­mes­tic in­dus­try, thereby pro­mot­ing eco­nomic growth.

For­eign or­gan­i­sa­tions, such as aid agen­cies or phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, do have a role to play in boost­ing lo­cal in­no­va­tion. They can sup­port it fi­nan­cially, cre­ate new part­ner­ships, and en­cour­age pol­i­cy­mak­ers to give it more cre­dence.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has a role to play as well. This year, the United Na­tions will adopt the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals, mark­ing the start of the next phase of global ef­forts to erad­i­cate poverty and im­prove health. As the ex­am­ple of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries’ on­go­ing fight against coun­ter­feit and low-qual­ity medicines shows, suc­cess will de­pend – far more of­ten than not – on lo­cal in­no­va­tion.

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