Shaping the future of SA's economic growth through science, technology and innovation

Department of science and technology Director-General Phil Mjwara supports the role that science and technology must play in achieving Vision 2030. (Photo courtesy DST)

Department of science and technology Director-General Phil Mjwara supports the role that science and technology must play in achieving Vision 2030. (Photo courtesy DST)

In a globalised environment where developments in information and communication technologies continue apace innovation must remain at the heart of all government policies.

Governments exert a strong influence on the innovation process through the financing and steering of public organisations that are directly involved in knowledge generation and diffusion, and through the provision of financial and regulatory incentives to all actors in the innovation space.

The South African government has recognised the ever-changing global environment and has shifted gear to ensure the country is not left behind. Strategic plans such as the Nine-Point Plan launched in 2015 as part of the implementation of the National Development Plan (Vision 2030) to reignite growth and create jobs, take into consideration the changes needed for increased growth. The Nine-Point Plan focuses on areas such as energy, tourism, agriculture, industrialisation and transportation.

The National Development Plan acknowledges science, technology and innovation (STI) as fundamental in changing people’s lives for the better. It is therefore unsurprising that STI is a significant contributor to all areas in government’s Nine-Point Plan, demonstrating the importance of STI to socio-economic growth. Initiatives of the department of science and technology (DST) have been leveraged by other departments that lead elements of the Nine-Point Plan to advance their own objectives in areas such as growing the oceans economy, ensuring a higher impact Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP), unlocking the potential of small and medium enterprises, developing innovative alternatives in the provision of water and sanitation, and advancing minerals beneficiation.

At the DST, we have sharpened the focus on how our work can contribute to the reduction of inequality, poverty and unemployment.  We have identified a few areas in which we can support the Nine-Point Plan, including agriculture, the beneficiation of minerals, energy and boosting small and medium enterprises.

Agriculture is being revitalised by STI. We are using space-based technologies and information and communication technologies (ICTs) for what we call smart agriculture. Space-based technologies are employed to obtain information relevant to farmers’ planning.  For example, knowing about weather patterns in advance can assist farmers in identifying and optimising irrigation frequency to increase crop yields.  Early warnings of fire hazards and disease outbreaks are other examples.

ICTs allow farmers in far-flung areas receive this crucial information in good time via their cellphones, so that they can take early action to avoid crop failure.

South Africa is increasingly exposed to the dire effects of climate change in our water-scarce region. We are engaging in research to develop drought resistant crops to help avoid food insecurity in the future.

Industry also needs input from STI.  In recent times South Africa has experienced a decline in industrial activity, with manufacturing being especially affected.  IPAP lists a number of challenges facing the manufacturing sector, and the DST supports several of these areas through mineral beneficiation initiatives. 

The platinum group metals of which the country has high reserves, are one of the minerals being beneficiated.  These metals are used for hydrogen fuel cell technology, which the DST hopes will boost the country’s manufacturing capacity and competitiveness. The Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) initiative was launched in 2008 and the country is now seeing its benefits — from renewable energy to power schools in rural Cofimvaba, to partnerships with global mining companies like Impala Platinum.  The latter’s stationary fuel cell applications and hydrogen fuel cell-powered forklift illustrate how STI investments are paying off. 

Going forward, through both public and private partnerships, the DST is looking to deploy more fuel cell units in public infrastructure like schools and clinics, as well as in sectors such as mining, particularly in the underground environment to mitigate against diesel particulate emissions. This will be part of the target of deploying 25 hydrogen fuel cell units incorporating HySA technology by the 2019/20 financial year.

Even more impressive is the fact that South Africa’s first indigenous fuel cell company, HyPlat (a spin-off company from HySA), has gained significant and rapid entry into the global billion-dollar fuel cell market. HyPlat successfully launched its products in Germany last year, showing that, through sustained commitment, South Africa can deliver world-class technology that is globally competitive. As a country we can be proud of these achievements.

It bodes well for the future when one considers current research initiatives that also fall under the Nine-Point Plan. Projects like the titanium metal powder production project will, if successful, complete the local beneficiation value chain for a globally strategic metal, resulting in a new industry with substantial value addition. Titanium power is widely used in industries such as aerospace, medical applications, transport and chemical processing where high-performance, lightweight parts are essential. Titanium powder (a precursor to titanium alloy) has become even more important because of its use in additive manufacturing (3D printing) — a cost-effective manufacturing process for complex or customised components, which continues to grow rapidly.

The DST is also funding the research and technology development of the next generation of additive manufacturing machines, the Aeroswift, developed jointly by the CSIR’s National Laser Centre and the Aerosud Innovation and Training Centre. The term “next generation” refers to a substantial increase in printing speed (between five and 10 times faster), and to the almost five-fold increase in the size of parts that can be printed in the machine.  The first flight component was printed in December 2016, and the aim is to build the first production aircraft components in 2018. In parallel, the industrialisation of the production of the Aeroswift machines is also under way.  The substantial improvement in printing capability and build speed will open up new areas and types of component that can be produced in South Africa, resulting in competitiveness enhancement and new industry creation.

Supporting the Nine-Point Plan’s energy commitments, the DST recently launched the first South African Bioenergy Atlas. The atlas plots the country’s biomass resources to assist in the exploitation of this renewable energy option. It is expected that public-private partnerships will use the information to create jobs while ensuring energy security.

As far as scaling up IPAP is concerned, the department has a Technology Localisation Programme, which provides technological assistance to firms (large and small). This is intended to increase their capability and competitiveness, enabling them to secure contracts from state-owned companies (SOEs) like Eskom, or from multinational corporations working on contract for SOEs, for example, General Electric.

In addition to the focused technology assistance to firms which may be able to enter the SOE procurement process, the DST is also funding a broad-based technology support programme called the Technology Stations Programme.  This helps SMEs to mature their technologies, prototypes or innovations, facilitating market penetration and increased turnover.

The cross-cutting STI activities that have been mentioned here are essential for building the industries of tomorrow, as well as the required human capital and skills, which are expected to change drastically as the next industrial revolution materialises.

Increased investment in STI is therefore essential for South Africa’s current and future economic growth, which is the bedrock for alleviation poverty, unemployment and inequality.