Research and innovation in science and technology is an essential key to unlocking Botswana’s global competitiveness.
Botswana is investing in locally generated research, science, technology and innovation as a means of transforming the economy into one that is knowledge- based. This is in line with Vision 2036 and the National Policy on Research, Science, Technology and Innovation (RSTI). Support in this area has included the establishment of the Innovation Fund and capacity building for tertiary education institutions through Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) Research Grants.
The Department of Research, Science and Technology, under the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology, coordinates and provides an enabling environment for research. National Development Plan 11, which was launched in 2017, highlights development- oriented research activities in areas such as health, the service industry, ecotourism, software development, agriculture, manufacturing, mining, water, energy, housing, construction and transport.
As part of the drive towards enhancing Botswana’s performance in research, science, technology and innovation, and building a knowledge-based economy, tertiary education institutions, both public and private, have been participating in the knowledge space through the presentation of research papers at international conferences as well as participating as international technical advisors. Local institutions also continue to bring together global professionals and researchers from all disciplines through international conferences.
Commencing operations in 2012, the Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH) is an innovative and networked organisation that promotes technology, entrepreneurship and commercialisation. Operating under the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology, with a Board of Directors from diverse disciplines, BIH has two subsidiaries; namely, Botswana Innovation Hub Properties (BIHP) and Botswana Innovation Hub Investments (BIHI). BIHP has a mandate to develop and manage the Science and Technology Park, which is strategically located on a 57-hectare site near Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone, while BIHI is a special purpose vehicle to attract commercially viable and technology related investments.
BIH supports start-ups and existing local companies as well as attracting international companies and institutions to develop and grow competitive, technology-driven and knowledge-based businesses. Key focus areas are Information Communications Technology (ICT) and ICT Enabled Services, Biotechnology (Agricultural and Health Technologies), Mining Technology, Clean Technology, and Indigenous Knowledge Systems.
BIH services include:
• Technology Entrepreneurship Development – Incubation, business acceleration and innovation capacity building
• Innovation Funding – Promoting innovation through provision of seed/early-stage funding
• Technology Transfer and Innovation Commercialisation
• Real Estate Services for all Innovative Ventures – Grade A office space to let and commercial and light industrial plots for sale
Registered companies and institutions are given special incentives, with qualifying applicants granted a BIH Membership Certificate which entitles them to networking, research and technical collaboration opportunities locally and internationally, a concessionary corporate tax rate of 15 percent, and eligibility to import specialised skills and personnel. In addition, members have access to the Technology Entrepreneurship Programme and the Innovation Fund run by BIH, as well as access to a range of technology transfer and commercialisation services.
The BIH’s First Steps Venture Centre supports entrepreneurship and innovation through technology transfer; identifying, developing and nurturing viable technology-oriented start-ups with the potential to expand locally and penetrate international markets.
Key developments over the past few years include the arrival of new companies such as Orange, Dimension Data, Okavango Diamond Company (ODC) and Khoemacau.
During this time, innovation solutions delivered included water treatment technologies and a carrier-neutral data centre. As it develops and gains more residents, BIH intends expanding its site from 57 to 70 hectares.
Coordinated by the BIH, the Botswana Innovation Fund (BIF) was launched in February 2018 with a mandate to foster technology start-ups. The fund promotes innovation through technology, product and business development in the private sector by providing cash grants to companies and organisations registered with the BIH, as well as to universities and research organisations to which those companies and organisations may subcontract part of the research and development work. The fund also encourages entities registered with the BIH to transfer skills to citizen employees by providing cash grants to be utilised for institutionalised training and/or approved on- the-job training programmes.
Eco Hub, a local start-up company funded by the BIF, converts recycled plastic mixed with recycled wood powder and other additives into eco-bricks which are easy-to-assemble, durable and low-cost. Following the completion of a pilot classroom at Lobatse Senior Secondary School in early 2021, the bricks will be used to build structures ranging from homes to classrooms and community centres.
In partnerships with the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), BIH announced a new funding programme – Grand Challenges Botswana – in February 2021. This is a unique but collaborative project under the Grand Challenges Africa (GC Africa) initiative, which awards grants to the continent’s most impressive innovators to promote Africa-led scientific innovations in support of sustainable economic development.
The successful merger of the Botswana Technology Centre (BOTEC) and Rural Industries Promotions Company (Botswana) RIPCO (B) saw the establishment of the Botswana Institute for Technology, Research and Innovation (BITRI) in 2013. Historically, BOTEC served as a national focal point for science and technology research and development, as well as disseminating such information to policy makers, organisations, companies and individuals, and developing ready-for-market prototype technologies.
BITRI conducts needs-based research and development in specific areas of national interest, and adapts, develops and enhances technologies for local use. This has included development of the Kgalagadi Sand Building Block (KSBB) technology, enabling the construction of buildings without the use of river sand.
One of BITRI’s most notable projects has been a state-of- the-art solar powered SEDING® light that can be used in a wide range of settings, including parking lots, gardens, farms, cattle posts, playing fields, clinics, gathering places like the Kgotla, and in numerous other locations. Being solar powered, the lights cost nothing to run and, most importantly, are environmentally friendly.
The installation of these solar street lights is ongoing, and they are functioning well in test sites in Moshupa, Lobatse and Letlhakane.
BITRI’s other projects have included a Mineral Beneficiation Programme, along with a laboratory and pilot plant for Coal to Liquid (CTL) technology. A world-class Centre for Material Sciences assists in the development of new materials for water purification and air filtration, among others. The Centre provides testing services to industry while also serving as a home for cutting-edge research.
In 2019, BITRI conducted a mid-term review of its strategy, which included the following highlights:
• In respect of the KSBB technology project, 29 depots are to be set up countrywide. The technology has been patented and BITRI has licensed Kago Phepa (Pty) Ltd, a local company, to manufacture the blocks and supply depots.
• Under the Building Material Science division, the potential of local raw materials to produce Portland cement clinker is being investigated in collaboration with the Botswana Geoscience Institute (BGI).
• Under the Nanomaterials division, industrial dust masks made from nano-fibres have demonstrated a Viral Filtration Efficiency (VFE) of over 99.9 percent, thus opening doors for BITRI to expand its mask development to include protective health and medical masks.
• Another nanotechnology project focuses on three types of water filters – nylon nano-fibre, ceramic and carbon- based filters for water purification. Filter cartridges made from Morupule Coal have been shown to remove odours, while filters made from fly-ash remove arsenic from water, and ceramic-based water filters are able to remove 100 percent of bacteria from contaminated water.
• The Biogas project developed in collaboration with UNDP aims to facilitate low-carbon investments and public-private partnerships in the production and utilisation of biogas from agro-waste. It is being adopted predominantly in South-Eastern Botswana, where 26 digesters have been built and are operating in Moshupa, Kanye and Tlokweng, among others.
BITRI has recently established a software development centre which will enhance Botswana’s participation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The centre develops core and backbone platforms across national economic sectors, and accompanying application programming interfaces to allow seamless integration with applications from other developers.
The institute is currently collaborating with the National Health Laboratory to sequence whole genomes of COVID-19 viruses. This is taking place through a project funded by the National Institute for Health Research Global Health Research Unit Tackling Infections to Benefit Africa (TIBA). Whole genome sequencing of viruses has become a useful tool for understanding the ability of viruses to cause disease, track the evolution of viral genomes during transmission and at different time points in the infection cycle. By studying and comparing viral genomes from different countries, analysis of genetic mutations across the SARS-CoV-2 genomes can be used in the development of efficacious vaccines and novel treatments, and to improve diagnostic tests.
The National Agricultural Research and Development Institute (NARDI) includes the former Department of Agricultural Research (DAR), National Veterinary Laboratory (NVL), and National Food Technology Research Centre (NFTRC), following the merger of the three institutions. Support to stakeholders is thus being enhanced through cluster-focused, community based regional research centres, as well as specialist agricultural research and development innovation centres, testing and diagnostic laboratories and agri-business incubation centres across the country. NARDI serves to consolidate existing high-value public investment in infrastructure, equipment and facilities in order to engage in high-quality, innovation-intensive and needs-driven research and development.
Furthermore, NARDI will promote the beneficiation of intellectual property and related intangible assets, such as Botswana’s indigenous knowledge systems and agro-based geographical indications. Besides research and development, the institute comprises an entire division dedicated to commercialisation and technology transfer activities across the agricultural value chain, thereby benefiting consumers, farmers, industry and government.
NARDI is to operate along key thematic research areas. These include horticulture, field crops, floriculture, industrial crops, ornamental plants, fodder, livestock production, animal health and bio-systems engineering, as well as food science and technology, agricultural economics, innovation, intellectual asset beneficiation, technology transfer and commercialisation.
The establishment of the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) has been a major milestone in Government’s efforts to create a knowledge-based economy in Botswana. The university, which produced its first graduates in November 2016, is helping to increase access to tertiary education and facilitate the development of the country’s human resources in skills and competencies that will promote research and innovation. BIUST seeks to partner with industry as well as local and international institutions to facilitate exchange programmes and work attachments to ensure its relevance to the world of work.