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Thinking Development

By Christopher Guta, PhD:

Mphatso Kampeni, a diplomacy and international relations scholar based in the Kingdom of Eswatini, wrote on the subject of women, innovation and renewable energy on the ‘My Point of View’ column. Read it at http://www.times.mw/women-innovation-renewable-energy/. I like the rallying call Kampeni made that effort should be made to train more young women in engineering fields and encourage women to invest in renewable energy businesses. Kampeni believes that Malawi can become a leader in renewable energy innovation.

What exactly should Malawi do to become a leader in renewable energy innovation? Kampeni identified one of the important factors which could make Malawi become a more innovative country – not only in the renewable energy sector but other economic sectors as well. This factor is training and, of course, education. Indeed, innovation and the systems put in place for its emergence is an important capability for economic development of Malawi. This is the reason in assessing the innovation capability of countries and how their national innovation systems foster economic development, three education-related factors are very influential.

First is primary education; primary school teacher-to-pupil ratio to be specific. This ratio, which reached a high of about 80 in 2009, has been declining steadily recently but at 67 to one in 2018, it is still higher than the national target of 60 to one and the Unesco global average of 24 to one. The second factor is secondary education with gross enrollment percent as a measure. A recent report on secondary education in Malawi, available at https://mastercardfdn. org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/SEA-School-Level-Efficiencies- Case-Study-Malawi_Final-1.pdf concludes that there are considerable technical efficiency problems that need to be addressed if Malawi is to benefit from education as a driver for innovation.

The report finds that about 22 percent of schools (19 out of the 88) are further away from the efficiency frontier when the output measure is mere pass rates in MSCE examinations. However, when pass rates with distinction are used as the output measure, about 72 percent of schools fail to reach the acceptable efficiency frontier. From a modern secondary education system perspective, the fact that the report also finds that there is low internet connectivity in Malawi’s secondary schools will delay transitioning of the country to an innovative one as Kampeni desires. The third factor is tertiary education. I hope there have been positive developments in tertiary education from the situation in 2010 when the cost per capita for university education in Malawi was, according to the World Bank, the highest in the world.

Sadly, for Kampeni, women are most disadvantaged with respect to education in Malawi. As in other developing countries, perhaps, there is unequal numbers entering secondary education, thereby limiting access to tertiary education. There is need to double efforts for girls’ education if Malawi’s women are to enter the renewable energy business sector and contribute to making the country a leader in renewable energy innovation and in any sectoral innovation for that matter.

I should draw your attention to other indicators of an innovation system that contributes significantly to national economic development. A major one is access to information and communication technologies. In Malawi, 2017 data from the International Telecommunications Union shows that only 13.8 percent of the population used the internet while 6.3 percent and 11.1 percent of households had a home computer and internet access in the home respectively. The penetration of mobile telephony stood at 41.1 percent; well ahead of fixed telephony which was at 0.1 percent. Fixed broadband and mobile subscriptions stood at zero and 25.5 percent respectively. These indicators are low by global standards.

The late D.D. Phiri called on our academics to analyse the conditions which are conducive to Malawi’s development and those which deter it as opposed to joining those of us who whine regarding Malawi’s progression to a developed country status. This is the context in which the number of science and engineering publications are an indicator of how weak or strong a country’s innovation system is. While Kampeni made a clarion call for more young women to be trained and educated in engineering fields, I would extend the call by asking the women in academia who are already in the engineering field to actively engage in research and publish their work in journals and books. Regrettably, however, Malawi’s performance regarding publications in science and engineering is weak. Evidence shows that research is not much of a priority in our higher education institutions – a factor that, most likely, impinges negatively on their ability to become entrepreneurial and, progressively, more self-sustaining.

So, as you and I approach May 21 2019 to cast our votes for any party of our choice, let’s look at or listen to presentations of its manifesto and assess the extent to which that party will move Malawi’s innovation system from the level it is now to a higher one. I know that, in 2008, Malawi’s innovation system was the least effective from a list of 115 countries with respect to its impact on economic development

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