Blog: Workshop on Water Innovation in Africa
06 March 2019
On 14 February 2019, the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education hosted a workshop on Water Innovation in Africa, under the theme “Fostering water innovation in Africa: learning from science and practice”. Hosted by the Rector of IHE Delft, Professor Eddy Moors, the workshop started with an introduction by Dr. Uta Wehn, Associate Professor of Water Innovation Studies at IHE Delft. She set the scene by pointing out the wide range of innovations that IHE Delft has been contributing to with its research activities. She highlighted the more recent focus of the institute on the dynamics of water innovation processes, the results of which provided the basis for knowledge sharing about the science and practice on water innovation in Africa at this workshop.
Over 35 delegates from Dutch-based organisations attended the workshop. In a “café”ambience, the workshop consisted of three “knowledge stations”, focusing on different but interrelated knowledge products. At each station, the host gave a short presentation, followed by discussions. A plenary session brought together all participants and station hosts to discuss cross-cutting innovation issues. Here we summarize the key messages shared during the workshop.
Station # 1 focused on the determinants of water innovation in Africa (results from postdoctoral research conducted jointly by IHE Delft and the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa). To kick off the discussions, the station host, Dr. Silas Mvulirwenande, briefly described the changing landscape of water innovation in Africa and shared his research findings on the key factors influencing water innovation from three perspectives: the innovation itself, the innovating entity and the innovation environment. Some of the study findings discussed at station # 1 include the fact that African countries are increasingly creating enabling conditions for (water) innovation, but many capability gaps remain (such as fragmentation of water innovation systems and lack of long-term investment for water innovation); the predominance of small scale water innovators and innovation challenges associated with their size; difficulty to diffuse emerging water innovations; and (virtual)incubation and partnerships (involving local actors) as promising mechanims to foster water innovation in Africa. Overall, the study findings suggest that promoting water innovations in African requires multi-level and multi-faceted efforts. Discussions also covered some policy implications of the study, namely the need (1) to go beyond water innovation pilots (and invest in scaling), (2) to embrace visionary thinking about water innovation, (3) to combine complementary innovation support mechanims (e.g. using virtual incubators along with mechanisms such as innovation alliances and community of practices).
Station # 2 focused on the taxonomy of water innovation studies published in the Special Issue on the Dynamics of water innovation (edited by researchers from IHE Delft and TNO). The station was hosted by Dr. Carlos de Montalvo (from TNO) who highlighted first the remarkable lack of academic studies on the dynamics of water innovation, not just in Africa but globally, and briefly elaborated on the need for (and the content of) the taxonomy. The taxonomy aims to provide systematic guidance for studying water innovation; it draws on three areas (management, strategy and policy) and consists of four organising dimensions: type of innovation, stage of innovation, level of analysis and measurement. Discussions with participants further covered a variety of issues such as how the taxonomy can be used, for whom it was actually developed, and lessons learnt from its application. It was emphasized that the taxonomy provides a much needed framework for researchers to study water innovation from different angles. Researchers can use it to frame or organise their innovation studies on the different functional categories of the water sector: integrated water resources management, water infrastructure and water services. For example, the taxonomy was used to organise the contributions for the Special issue on dynamics of water innovation, which revealed that the water services category attracts more attention of researchers than other categories.
Wehn, U. and Montalvo, C. (2018) Exploring the dynamics of water innovation: Foundations for water innovation studies, Journal of Cleaner Production, 171(S), 1-19.
Station # 3 focused on the draft AfriAlliance strategic knowledge and innovation advice on water and climate in Africa and was hosted by Dr. Uta Wehn (from IHE Delft). Discussions started with a short introduction to the AfriAlliance project and the draft policy brief containing the advice and underlying methodology. The advice consists of the following six major recommendations (for African policy makers) on how to strengthen the capacity of the water sector in Africa and prepare for climate change impacts: making climate change concerns part of daily water management, going beyond water security (and cover other societal challenges such as food security and public health), tapping into all relevant knowledge sources (not just scientific research), embracing complexity, and localising innovation policies and associated implementation strategies. In a second stage, participants discussed and asked questions relating to some of these recommendations. The station host emphasized that the advice draws on two types of analysis (top-down and bottom-up), which highlights, for instance, that the water-energy-food nexus as a societal challenge receives less attention in policy agendas of African countries but is prioritised by professionals/public in terms of knowledge gap. Participants raised the issue of how to implement the advice, given that in some countries climate change may not be of immediate concern to policy makers. In such cases, more efforts in monitoring and capacity development are needed to produce climate data that can feed into the water management practices and decision making processes.
The plenary session was moderated by Professor Eddy Moors, Rector of IHE Delft. Discussions were facilitated by a Kahoot game in which participants were asked to give an opinion on two major (water) innovation-related issues, based on their experience.
The first issue concerned the mindset prevailing in Africa that “science and research are the primary sources of ideas and innovation”. The workshop participants and panellists agreed that this mindset prevails at global level, not just an African issue. It was indicated that innovations do not necessarily originate from scientists and/ or research and Development (R&D) activities alone - that innovative ideas are also triggered by practitioners and engineers. In addition, not all innovative companies (especially SMEs) have R&D departments and, in many cases, their innovations are incremental. This is particularly so in Africa where innovators face resources constraints. The panelists highlighted that, as in other emerging economies, useful water innovations can also come from grassroots innovators (or the informal sector). The prevailing mindset has some negative implications – e.g., researchers and scientists tend to work in silos, and innovation policies and approaches favor science and research to the detriment of other sources of innovation. The panelists argued that the mindset (and associated effects) can be adressed by simultaneously fostering science-based and interactive learning - based approaches to innovation in Africa.
The second issue related to the perception that finance is the # 1 challenge for water innovation in Africa. During the discussions, most participants agreed that financing water innovation is a real problem in Africa, but that the issue is not necessarily the lack of funding per se, but accessibility of existing funds. This is associated with many factors, including the fact that (1) funders and innovators do not easily find each other, (2) financiers and innovators do not match regarding terms of funding, (3) innovators lack capacity to sell their ideas to funders and (4) funders and innovators get cold feet when the real game starts. For example, participants indicated how small scale innovators in Africa shy away from approaching commercial banks when they start to see the risk they themselves are taking, and prefer to rely on family members instead. In some cases, the funds available are too huge to be absorbed by small scale innovators, which calls for strong water innovation intermediaries such as incubators. The panelists highlighted that each stage of the water innovation process has its own financing challenges, implying that innovation financing should be shaped by the maturity level of innovation projects.