Monday, August 20, 2007

Regional Alliance Set to Harness Science for Poverty Mitigation

from All Africa

The Herald (Harare)

By Sifelani Tsiko

The Regional Research Alliance, a grouping of three top scientific institutions in Southern Africa, is taking practical steps to contribute significantly to regional efforts to improve food security, energy, water resource management and infrastructure development.

The new scientific alliance - made up of Zimbabwe's Scientific Industrial Research and Development Centre, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research of South Africa and the Botswana Technology Centre - is now mobilising and applying science to address problems of water, energy, infrastructure and food security.

At a recent two-day RRA strategic planning workshop, scientists from the three institutions mapped out a strategy to harness science to mitigate poverty and improve access to new technologies. RRA co-ordinator at Sirdc Dr Leonard Madzingaidzo said this alliance aims to promote, pursue and implement projects with high regional impact, relevance and benefit to people of the region.

He said the other objective was to create synergy by pooling resources, to develop regional knowledge networks and enhance regional capabilities through human resource development and sharing of best practices.

"It's important for us as scientists to work together to find solutions to problems facing the region," Dr Madzingaidzo said. "In the European Union they are doing this and we need to do the same and work together for the benefit of our people in the region."

The guiding principles of the RRA are to:

* Promote, pursue and implement projects with high regional impact, relevance and benefit to the people

* Create synergy by pooling the energies, skills and facilities of members

* Develop regional knowledge networks for commerce and industry to enhance their competitiveness

* Enhance regional capabilities through human resource development and sharing of best practices

The major areas of focus for the RRA include addressing energy problems which have become critical in the region owing to rising demand, rapid urbanisation, lack of resources to invest in energy production and growing pressure to use sustainable methods to produce energy.

The RRA is also aiming to find solutions to water and food security issues that are worsening in the region owing to climate change, drought and lack of capacity by poor farmers to increase food production.

Building, construction and infrastructure is another priority area for the RRA, which sees this as the basis for improving the quality of life for people in the region as well as boosting investment levels.

"The focus of the alliance is on multi-faceted, cross-functional activities and currently water and food security, energy and building construction and infrastructure are being proactively pursued," said Dr Madzingaidzo.

"However, should opportunities arise in other domains these will be considered on merit and where appropriate a team will be formed to take initiatives further."

At the just-ended RRA strategic planning workshop, experts from the partner institutions agreed to:

* Develop a mechanism to evaluate performance through set targets
* Meet every year to review progress made by the Alliance
* Focus on image building and raise awareness about the activities of the alliance
* Strengthen the internalisation of the RRA principles in member institutions
* Strengthen the harmonisation of RRA activities and mandates
* Strengthen information sharing and networking
* Implement a three-year Strategic Plan
* Promote exchange programmes for scientists and engineers
* Strengthen mechanisms for marketing the RRA activities
* Develop strategies for tapping research financing opportunities from governments, multilateral institutions, regional bodies and other sources

"Our members resolved that we should stick to the three inaugural member countries," said Dr Madzingaidzo.

"In future we hope to include other countries in the region as well.

"For now it's better to stick to three so as to better manage the implementation of the RRA projects."

Africa's three leading science and technology institutions formed the Alliance in July 2005 in Gaborone, Botswana.

Before the launch, it was Dr Robson Mafoti, the Sirdc chief executive, Botec acting managing director Nick Ndebele and CSIR president and chief executive Dr Sibusiso Sibisi, who played a leading role in laying the ground work for the alliance.

A workshop that was held in Kopanong, South Africa, in October 2004 laid the foundation for the RRA functions and activities.

At its inception, the alliance sought to harness a regional knowledge pool to contribute not only to the region but to Africa as a whole through projects with a magnitude and complexity that transcend the capabilities of any single organisation.

Through transforming sophisticated technology into practical applications that address real problems, the RRA hopes to maintain an independent objective perspective and rigid adherence to the highest standards of integrity and ethical practice.

"Some of the challenges we face include how to inculcate a sense of team work in our scientists in our respective member institutions," said Dr Madzingaidzo. "It's a challenge but we have to work on it over time."

Other challenges included how the alliance could package its projects to get finance for research from multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, African Development Bank, Sadc and other research funding institutions.

But scientists and engineers in the alliance are optimistic about the future of this grouping in leading research and technology institutions.

"Science and technology are playing a major role in the development of nations.

"Although the RRA is being worked out on a regional level it is vital to form international working relationships in light of globalisation and to facilitate networking," said Dr Reinie Biesenbach, director of the RRA secretariat.

There is no doubt that this Alliance will lead to a continuous evolution towards even closer integration of research programmes to better achieve the missions of both member institutions.

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