Support education sector to boost technological innovation

About a week ago, social media was abuzz with the story of fourth year undergraduate who invented a voice-operated computer system capable of automating complex tasks and managing other third-party systems around the house. Sam Masikini, a fourth-year Bachelor of Science in Information Technology and the inventor behind the system, says his system can be used for a number of tasks, including enhancing security around the home and managing existing installed systems installed in the home such as electric gates and Closed-Circuit Televisions (CCTV).  The student believes that with proper support from the public and private sector, he can engineer his prototype, which he dubbed Thandi, to execute more complex tasks in bigger facilities and structures.

There is no telling what this system can accomplish if it had the necessary support to drive its development. But therein lies the caveat. For all their potential, innovations like these never seem to achieve their full potential because there just isn’t enough support to promote their growth. There is little enthusiasm from government and private sector to support initiatives like this when they are in the ideation or development stages.

By failing to support these initiatives, Malawi is missing out on an excellent opportunity to address critical macro-economic problems such as youth unemployment and inclusive growth. And this is an area Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Joseph Mwanamvekha should definitely take note of when he is presenting the 2019/20 National Budget in Parliament.  In the national budget, Capitol Hill has a unique opportunity to re-align its policy orientation to support these initiatives and harness their potential to promote economic and technological growth. There is need to ensure that the educations sector gets the necessary financial support to ensure that these innovations are funded at the ideation stage and, later on, stimulate the private sector to create an ecosystem that can spur growth in technological sector.

In its analysis of the 2018/19 budget, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) urged its stakeholders “to fast track measures to support catalytic programs to create jobs for youth while supporting an environment for private sector expansion for acceleration and sustainability of employment generation”. It is against this backdrop that Mwanamvekha and company should reconsider redirecting more funding to ensure that the education sector gets the necessary financing it need to support promising entrepreneurs like Masikini. But Capitol Hill will need to make some meaningful changes to the budget to make this a reality. It has been well documented that government is struggling to meet its funding obligations to the education sector. In the 2018/19 National Budget, government spent K166 billion of the proposed K1.5 trillion, or 11 percent of total public expenditure. The allocation was four percentage points lower than the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) number four; ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong opportunities for all.

A proper investment in the education sector, will lay a solid foundation to build on the targets that can feed into Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) number 9; which is to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.  With the right investment to develop an education system that promotes training in “relevant skills, including technical, vocational skills for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship” among the youth, government will create a pool of young and technological savvy businessmen.

These young entrepreneurs can then form the basis for a technology-driven business ecosystem that can drive innovation in Malawi. Later on, these youth can support domestic technology development, research and innovation if the government can create a conducive policy environment to support them. It is a model that the industrialised economies in the West have built their technological superiority on.  Governments either fund tertiary institutions to conduct research in critical development area or create incentives for non-State actors to make the necessary investments.  In that way, the best minds in the academia can interact with key industry players to develop innovations and products. n

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