Lesley Erica Scott recently joined the long and illustrious list of South African innovators by winning the 2015 Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) Special Prize for Social Impact. But how long before she and other young South African pioneers like her decide to trade these sunny shores for greener pastures abroad, as so many have done before?
A South African, Lesley Erica Scott, recently muscled out fellow African innovators to scoop the Special Prize for Social Impact at the recent Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) event held in Morocco in May this year. Scott was lauded for developing an effective calibration method for TB diagnostic machines, and even though no South Africans were able to secure the Grand Prize of $100 000, it is telling of our innovative prowess as a country that four of the ten finalists of the IPA hailed from South Africa. This is actually not surprising considering that South Africans have never been particularly lax in their inventiveness.
In 2013, the South African Patent Office processed 7 295 patent applications, the most of all the low- and middle-income countries in the world, and accordingly, SA was considered the 9th most innovative upper-middle income country in 2014. South Africans are clearly eager to pioneer and thankfully their ideas are able to further flourish in an investment climate that is considered the 12th most desirable for innovation in the world (according to the 2014 Global Innovation Index).
1st – Patent applications (low – and middle-income countries);
9th – Most innovative (upper-middle income countries);
12th – Most desirable investment climate for innovation (all countries)
Beside recent innovative efforts, SA also boasts a history rich with intrepid inventors, with the previous 65 years producing the likes of Eric Merriefeld who in 1963 bequeathed us the etymological mystery that is the Dolos (a contraction of ‘dobbel’ ‘osse’ for some and ‘dollen os’ for others some), Allan Cormack who invented and named the CAT Scan (1972) (surely the world’s most disappointing misnomer) – and Henri Johnson who in 1992 fulfilled the dreams of comprehensive cricket statisticians the world over by introducing the speed gun to sports. Furthermore, the enterprising Ferdinand Chauvier would ensure that those privileged enough to have had access to a pool growing up would always remember the subdued, yet distinctive, “wub-wub-wub” sound of a Kreepy Krauly (1974). And any proud patriot surely believes that Chris Barnard’s successful heart transplant in 1967, a world first, only succeeded because of liberal applications of both Q20 (Mr. Robertson, 1950) and Pratley Putty (George Pratley, 1969).
Then there are also the lesser known innovations, the ones that don’t always make the top 10 lists and that most people might never actually encounter first-hand but all of which have still improved the lives of many throughout the years: The first and largest oil from coal refinery in the world constructed in Sasolburg (SASOL, 1950); the Tellurometer (Dr Trevor Wadley, 1959), which was as helpful in accurately determining distances via microwave technology as its name is difficult to pronounce correctly the first time; the Retinal Cryoprobe (Selig Amoils) which simplified cataract surgery in 1965 (may you never have to encounter this particular invention first hand); Mark Shuttleworth gave the world the Ubuntu Linux operating system in 2004 and in 2008 Optimal Energy gave us our very first, proudly South African, electric car – the Joule. Besides these there are many more inventions that perhaps remain obscure to the general public but have all changed the world in their own way and can be found in the accompanying infographic.
Recognising South Africa’s innovative brilliance, the Nobel Prize Committee has previously bestowed five prizes in the fields of Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine upon five South Africans who have each individually pushed the boundaries of innovation within their particular fields. A total of eleven Nobel Prizes have been claimed by South Africans over the years (the remaining six were for Peace or Literature). Enough to ensure that South Africa can claim to be the country with the 20th highest amount of Nobel Laureates in the world – tied with Belgium and one more than Ireland.
20th in the World – Most Nobel Prize Laureates per Country
But there is a catch. There always is in South Africa.
The problem is that despite the innovativeness of our fellow South Africans, our country, tragically, also has the disheartening distinction of being the only major Nobel country with a net emigration of prize winners. Besides Nobel Laureates, the likes of entrepreneurial and innovative greats such as Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX), Mark Shuttleworth (Ubuntu Linux), and Roelof Botha (Youtube, Instagram, Tumblr) have also all long since traded the beautiful beaches of Camps Bay and Umhlanga for the allure of bottomless Big Macs and profit maximising tax havens. In fact, according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, only 1 of SA’s top 15 Entrepreneurs still lives in their country of birth.
Only major Nobel country with net emigration of prize winners.
Only 1 of top 15 entrepreneurs still resides locally
It just goes to show that you can shape, and mould, and offer environments conducive to innovation, but you can never force a driven individual, as these innovators most assuredly are, to stay when there are better opportunities abroad.
But why are so many tempted to leave? Is it the fear of personal safety that has driven them away? Perhaps it is because we are ranked only 61st in ease of starting a new business? Or that government spending on R&D has fallen for the fourth straight year by 2014? But then the government has vowed to double R&D investment by 2019. Will this be enough to keep those keen minds where they are most needed – here at home?
Only time will tell.
One thing is for certain, we as a country have yet to become pariahs in the world of science and innovation and can still proudly hold our heads high and extend our breast while walking the hallowed halls of international innovation, but – despite financial and legislative support for innovation – if we cannot stem the tide of brilliant and passionate South African minds leaving we will soon be forced to hang our heads in shame. But then again, that’s South Africa – interesting, contradictory and a little bit funny at times.
Don’t forget to vote for the subject of the next Safro article and infographic a the top of the page.