We are in the middle of our fifth driver of competitiveness – the use of scientific knowledge driven by technology and innovation. The primer of all social-economic change, the improvement of all conditions for every society we know in the last 2000 years, has been based on the use of science and technology. Even before the Romans 2000 years ago, when you read the account in the Bible of the movement of people groups from Egypt, the premier civilization then, about the 18th century BC, a topic we have dealt with in the past, you will find that technology that was driven by the science of the time, very much aided the nature and kind of warfare that preceded the destruction of societies then and the eventual submission of certain groups by others. Egyptian civilization was lost because it fell behind in science and innovation.
When for example, Pharoah Tuthmose IV of ancient Egypt, who is believed to have faced Moses about the 1390BC over a people group called the Hebrews, slaves in Egypt for 400 years, you notice references to the use of words like, “smiting with the edge of the sword” while fighting, appearing about 24 times in the Old Testament. It was a term popular in the middle to the late bronze age (about 1550-1000BC). It meant a single-edged curved battle-ax and you would not be able to thrust it because it didn’t have a ‘throw’ shape. It was more like a grass cutting sickle, that we used in my village as a young boys cutting grass in the field for use in the calf pens at our home. By the beginning of 1000BC at the start of the iron age, technological warfare had improved with a wheel and horses, now to the use of iron tools, changing the language of the day and, therefore, reflecting the science of the day. You begin to see new references to terms like “driving the sword through and use of chariots”. What had happened? Science had changed on account of continuous innovation – slow as it was then. How about today when you can store an entire library on a small computer chip and you are able to print 3D models of products that were unheard of even 10 years ago? The use of scientific knowledge is the basis for progress and change. Science and innovation in a business are driven in three ways:
First, it is Innate Knowledge, the type we learn from seeing our parents or role models do as we grow up.
There are particular skills that perhaps, we traditionally value such as weaving mats, brewing, turning backcloth into various products or some kind of design of a kind, unique way to prepare food, a way to plant crops (like I used to with beans), certain cultural and customs and ways of life that are fast disappearing. This is because of new technology and commoditization of everything, yet people, often want to keep them, improve, or use or commercialize them. That knowledge is of a scientific value of its kind and should not be underestimated or abandoned simply because it is innate. This is why there exists in our country’s Ministry of Education and Sports a department for Industrial Training. That institution does a job of assessing, certifying, and accrediting innate local knowledge for building particular skills in businesses of young people. For example, our dairy farm introduced a new way to fence – two very strong poles that go a meter underground and some 4 meters apart a third pole and what stands in between are layers of cables hanging on very small poles that are untreated with chemicals against termites. The gates are done in resemblance to an accordion (musical instrument) that shrinks and stretches as one wishes and can be opened even by a child with ease but it is too strong for animals to break down. The method uses fewer treated poles, it makes the gates for animals very flexible yet strong and it cuts down the cost of fencing by a good margin. Our manager has tried this against protestations from the traditional fencing team until we are now seeing the difference. This is the knowledge that can be patented and employed to scale at farms. So, when you consider skills like that of Kamada Kiggundu and his management of effluent in slums in Kawempe/Bwaise, using rudimentary methods or Shaifiki Musoke and how he turns steel coils into chain building material and creating a home-grown product with very little investment, it is all good innovation that can be scaled. After all, what is the meaning of strategy in business and in life? Isn’t it to ensure that we can balance our means with our ends given we know the target where we want to go but our means are so limited? That is what innate knowledge gives us.
The second way to build a base of innovation is the iteration of a product from its raw often crude nature to a more modern and easier way to use it. This is the commonest way to build in-house innovation and technology standards because you are building on an original layer or somebody of knowledge you already domesticated. This week I read and watched the aircraft technology of the second world war as many of you know I like history.
I looked at the B-17, a four-engine heavy bomber developed in the 1930s by the Boeing company for the US air force. The aircraft was pretty crude but it did the job of dominating the skies from 1943 to the end of the second world war in May 1945 and beyond. It was probably a huge contributing factor in the defeat of Hitler because it often bombed the Luftwasse planes of Germany right on the tarmac. The plane was not pressurized and the crew had to wear oxygen masks to keep breathing above 10,000ft. The aircraft would often go up to 35,000ft and you can imagine the level of coldness and lack of oxygen at these levels. Pilots wore wool-padded leather jackets and gloves to keep warm, to hold and balance the weapons in order to drop their payload for a few seconds otherwise, the hands would freeze, and on landing, the crew would need hospitalization, with some often losing their fingers to frostbite. The life expectancy of a B17 pilot was only 11 missions or sorties yet they were required to fly 25. But by 1952, a higher version of the bomber was developed and introduced to the skies– the B52 which carried nuclear weapons and which was the West’s key deterrence machine in the cold war against the Soviet Union. It was a vastly different creation in capabilities from the B17. This means that Iterating what you have, changing its design knowledge locally and continuous improvements and upgrades, can domesticate the science of a product and help a business to compete.
Perhaps a fighter jet is far off an example for each of us watching to really comprehend given Uganda is not yet making aircraft. Let me use a much more home example. In 1979, as a nine/ten-year-old boy, I saw for the first time a Toyota pick truck of the brand called Stout. It was a hardy, sturdy, and rough machine but it was perhaps the only one able to manage country cattle trucks called roads in my area, carrying passengers and cargo. Today’s Toyota pickups are vastly different in design, functionality, and comfort. The same Toyota company iterates knowledge and experience to create products that move with the times. I remember radio announcements on Radio Uganda about a product made by a company called Salompas at the time – I think they were making soap and herbal medicines in the middle of the 1970s. I do not know if they morphed into the current beauty and pharmaceutical companies in Uganda making soaps, vaccines, and sanitizers. I hope it did.
The third way to build science and innovation is to spend on Research and Development. Countries that devote substantial resources to R&D are almost unequivocally the ones with the global businesses and cutting-edge technology in pharmaceuticals, weaponry, and IT.
In fact, R&D is the basis for the first two ways I mentioned earlier – Innate knowledge and Iteration. These countries are also some of the most stable, democratic, and somewhat predictable in policy and leadership environments. But governments don’t really run these research and development schemes for themselves. In the end, they invest in R&D infrastructure, to give their entrepreneurs an edge in the world market of both ideas and products, knowing they (governments) will rely on them in terms of taxation, new ideas, and innovation for the future of their societies. And a huge chunk of this R&D expenditure comes from businesses themselves. This is how businesses tie in with universities and colleges to think, incubate and bring groundbreaking products to the market. Uganda’s average R&D expenditure some 7 years ago as a percentage of GDP was 0.170. R&D drives businesses but where a majority of the businesses are SMEs with very limited cashflows, low retained margins, and small domestic markets with high costs of capital, research is the last to think about when a business has competing demands to stay afloat; yet without research and development, there is no future for our enterprises. The low R&D hurts all of us and just like low savings, this is an area we must have a genuine conversation in both the public and private sectors.
I have seen often the fight by some interests to disallow what I consider as strategic market interventions to birth new products, for example, the grain, bananas, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, vehicles technology, etc. I think this might be that many of us consider spending on research as probable wastage. I hope we can disagree on the manner in which this might be done – the way these interventions are made NOT the principle that a government must intervene in strategic sectors, including propping up failing enterprises, only if tomorrow these can be the breadwinners for the country if they are run well. Science and innovation reflect the capability of businesses, the nature and wealth of that society, or the failure of it and its businesses.
Have a great weekend