THE Covid-19 pandemic has exposed Lesotho’s huge technological gap in different ways, the United Nations Technology Bank (UNTB) for Least Developed Countries has said.
The gap is evidenced by the low internet connectivity and the lack of technological interventions in the fight against Covid-19, the managing director of the UNTB for Least Developed Countries, Joshua Setipa has said.
Mr Setipa said this in an interview with the Lesotho Times reporter Bereng Mpaki this week. The interview was held soon after the launch of the Lesotho Academy for Science and Technology (LAST) in Maseru this week. Mr Setipa said LAST would help Lesotho step up in the area of science and technology. Below are excerpts from the interview.
Lesotho Times: What is the United Nations Technology Bank (UNTB) and how does it intend to deliver its mandate?
Joshua Setipa: The UNTB is a new UN organisation established specifically to support the least developed countries, like Lesotho, to achieve their science, technology, and innovation agenda. Its objectives are to help countries to use science, technology, and innovation to better address a whole range of challenges, including food security, inclusive economic growth, climate change, and renewable energy.
The UNTB undertakes its mandate by supporting governments to enhance science, technology, and innovation policy-making capacities. It helps countries to identify policy gaps which limit or undermine their efforts in using technology.
The UNTB helps countries understand how they can best support innovation and companies in the technology sector to grow and scale up their innovations. It provides support to countries and research entities, universities, and academia to enhance their capacity to research and have access to global research networks to build local and regional research networks.
Lesotho Times: Why emphasis on science and technology in advancing sustainable national development in LDCs?
Joshua Setipa: Science, technology, and innovation are central to every country’s ability to develop and create sustainable health systems, build resilience in their economies, and create opportunities in the economy. Whether through enhancing their manufacturing capacity or to create a competitive ecosystem for startups, improving its health care system or education system, technology is central.
For example, take the current challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. We have all seen that once schools were unable to hold physical classes, children had to study online. However, studying online requires connectivity and without digital connectivity, children were unable to study.
It is estimated that globally over 60 percent of school children were unable to continue with classes due to lack of access to the Internet. Lesotho is no exception to this reality. Without digital connectivity, countries are unable to support businesses. In this sense, technology is a key to every solution and every part of a given country’s development strategy.
We have also seen that only a few countries were able to produce vaccines to treat Covid-19. Over the last few decades, these countries invested in enhancing their research and development capacity. They were also able to use technology to find solutions around climate change, agriculture, food security, energy, and ensuring that every citizen can access it.
Lesotho Times: Does the UNTB provide any funding towards building technology and innovation capacity for LDC’s like Lesotho?
Joshua Setipa: The UNTB provides funding for training and capacity building activities. For example, last year, the UNTB trained 3500 researchers, including those from Lesotho. It also supported funding for the establishment of the academy of sciences in Lesotho.
It will continue supporting its growth and establishing itself as a centre for excellence in science in Lesotho. The UNTB also funds scholarships and research fellowships. Through its partners’ network, the UNTB can mobilise the resources that support countries like Lesotho in various areas, including by supporting the establishment of innovation entities, such as innovation labs and incubators.
Finally, the UNTB facilitates access to technologies which are an important innovation and ensures that start-ups in Lesotho have access to the important networks for them to scale up their innovations and leapfrog.
Lesotho Times: Are there any UNTB projects in Lesotho to date?
Joshua Setipa: To date, the UNTB has supported the establishment of the academy of science. It is also availing fully funded scholarships for Lesotho students in the area of industrial design. It is also financing fully funded fellowships for researchers in biotechnology who will come for six months to conduct research in Italy, New Delhi, and Cape Town.
The UNTB, along with its partners, is supporting the establishment of an innovation lab in Lesotho to scale up innovation capacity and boost the innovation potential that we know exists. Finally, the UNTB is also funding diagnostic studies in Lesotho to help enhance government capacity to better create the right ecosystem around innovation and ensure that its policies are conclusive to innovation and fully integrated within science and technology.
Lesotho Times: What inspired the UNTB to partner with Lesotho for establishment of the Lesotho Academy for Science and Technology (LAST)?
Joshua Setipa: As part of its programmes of support for the least developed countries, the UNTB has set out to support the establishment of academies of science in countries where they do not exist. Today, 28 countries in Africa do not have academies of science or have academies that are not fully operational.
The UNTB establishes academies in countries like Lesotho where they do not exist or strengthens them, so they are effective interlocutors for governments and other stakeholders. For example, in December last year, the UN Technology Bank established the Academy of Science of Angola.
Now, we have just launched the Lesotho academy of science. At the end of March, we will establish the Academy of Science in Congo DRC, followed by Malawi in April. We also are doing the same in the Caribbean, Asia, and Pacific regions.
Lesotho Times: What are some of the indicators that Lesotho has technology and innovation gaps?
Joshua Setipa: One perfect example is that a significant portion of the Lesotho society is still not connected to the internet. Schools, hospitals, and other facilities in Lesotho do not have internet access, limiting their ability to work. Schools have closed, and children are unable to study because there is no internet access.
Another example is that Lesotho does not have an active and thriving innovation facility, which means that Lesotho cannot benefit from technology transfer to innovate around some of its challenges. Also, Lesotho does not have a strong capacity to innovate around a whole range of agriculture areas, such as precision farming capacity, which helps farmers utilise technology to mitigate climate change and increase yields and also mitigate the effects of natural disasters.
Another example is that Lesotho still does not have the scientific capacity to innovate around the Covid-19 and ways of dealing with the Covid-19, whether it is in the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) or in the manufacturing of equipment that helps to deal with the Covid-19 cases. While considering all these facts, we can conclude that Lesotho has not yet reached a threshold where it should as far as technology is concerned.
Lesotho Times: What roles are to be played by the UNTB and the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology in the implementation of the LAST project?
Joshua Setipa: The UNTB will support the strengthening of the academy of science and support in the formulation of the requisite legislation that is important for its operation as an independent statutory body that will provide independent expertise and advice to the government irrespective of which government is in place.
The Ministry of Communications, Science, and Technology is a vital partner in mobilising government support, particularly government resources, towards strengthening LAST and ensuring that the communication or the relationship between the scientific community and the government is a smooth one. The ministry is the main interlocutor for the Lesotho academy of science.
Lesotho Times: Is there any funding that Lesotho will receive to support the LAST?
Joshua Setipa: The funding that the academy will receive will be directed to LAST. It is the funding that will help develop instruments which the academy needs to succeed.
For instance, resource mobilisation instruments to enhance its institutional framework and to build the necessary legislative framework like partnerships with regional and international academies, which are important for the success of its work. The technology bank will also support the academy in mobilising resources for its infrastructure including facilities.
Lesotho Times: What are the timelines and milestones for the UNTB in delivering its goals in Lesotho?
Joshua Setipa: The first milestone was the launch of the academy of science. The second step is now to develop the legislation. This work will start immediately in consultation and partnership with the government and the Ministry of Communications, Science, and Technology.
The next step will be to develop the institutional framework for the academy that will allow it to build its independence and create its operational capacities. Those are timelines and milestones that we have to reach by the end of the year, and the legislative part will depend on how fast the Lesotho Parliament can pass this legislation.