Opinion: Why policy change is vital for tech innovation in social development programs

Youth technology training in South Africa. Photo by: Beyond Access / CC BY-SA

It is only through creating a healthy ecosystem for social entrepreneurship that Africa can truly unlock the potential of technological social innovation to address the Sustainable Development Goals.

Government policy, favorable to growing commercial and social enterprise, is a critical part of this ecosystem. In creating policies to build a sustainable social economy that is robust enough to achieve the SDGs, a multisector approach is critical. We need policy that stimulates social enterprise as well as sustaining it. This requires government to create and adjust policies in various sectors, ranging from health care to finance to education.

“Innovation leads, while regulations, policies, and laws lag behind.”

— Ernest Darkoh, co-founder, BroadReach Consulting

Organizations that exist at the intersection of profit and social good do a great deal to reduce some of the burden on governments to address society’s biggest social challenges, and this work must be recognized in policy. Governments also need to move away from a risk-averse, knee-jerk policy stance that is primarily based on what people cannot do. Instead, they need to develop a can-do policy orientation around removing restrictions, encouraging entrepreneurship, and easing access to growth capital.

When we ask whether or not African governments are ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the broad consensus is that most are not. This is not just an African problem — it is a global issue driven by the mind-boggling rate of technological change and evolution. Innovation leads, while regulations, policies, and laws lag behind. It is almost impossible to catch up with the rate of technological change, let alone get ahead of it to create the right, enabling legal and policy frameworks.

In the absence of these frameworks, most governments default toward focusing on what can’t be done instead of what can. They also tend to insist on “proven innovations,” which is the absolute antithesis to the meaning of innovation. To lead in innovation means that countries will need a much larger risk appetite and will be able to accept that many mistakes will happen — and this is okay.

Because of the frantic pace of technological change and the prolific explosion of new intellectual property and solutions, I advocate for an agile, “regulation lite” approach that is constantly informed by relevant local and global best practices. We certainly cannot regulate ourselves into becoming innovative. On the contrary, we are much more likely to regulate ourselves out of innovation and once again lag behind the rest of the world, which will be busy reaping incalculable dividends from 4IR.

For example, taking a position in 2019 that no data should be stored in the cloud or that all systems must be open-source is self-defeating and will grossly undermine innovation. If “data is the new oil,” then Africa must avoid doing what it has done with most of its raw materials to date: essentially giving them away at low prices so that everyone benefits — except Africa.

In addition to being critical to the achievement of the SDGs, the tech revolution gives Africa the opportunity to compete globally, create unprecedented youth employment, revitalize its economies, and finally pivot from being a “consumer” continent to becoming a respected, leading producer on a global scale.

This will all depend on Africa’s ability to create enabling environments that fuel and encourage local innovation and value creation. This includes providing the right incentives and structural enablers for innovation such as tax breaks, intellectual property protection, incubators for budding tech entrepreneurs, attracting those entrepreneurs to set up in Africa, and ensuring technology is integrated into the education system from the youngest appropriate age.

In Africa, a few countries are boldly embracing and capitalizing on the opportunities of 4IR. Rwanda clearly leads the pack, so much so that it has become a global magnet for innovators from all over the world who want to push the development of leading-edge technologies and business models. Kenya and South Africa are emerging as major African technology hubs. In health care, Ghana has been noted for its rollout of technology to support its model of universal health coverage. The government of Sierra Leone has created the role of chief innovation officer for the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation to ensure that it proactively drives its engagement with 4IR from the front.

We need more of this kind of action by African governments to truly harness the power of social innovation. This will help us achieve the SDGs and reframe Africa’s global ambitions around a framework that reflects our best selves.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Ernest Darkoh

    Dr. Ernest Darkoh is a co-founder of BroadReach Consulting. He is an internationally known expert in strategic health care systems planning, development and large-scale program implementation, including Botswana’s highly acclaimed Antiretroviral Treatment Program, the first African national HIV treatment program which serves as a successful model today.