Discovery science must become impact science in order fast-track social progress. This emerged during the celebration of 20 years of science and technology (S&T) cooperation between South Africa and India.

The two countries marked the milestone with several events in Cape Town and Durban, and a visit by the Indian Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Harsh Vardhan, to the Square Kilometre Array site in the Northern Cape. The South African Department of Science and Technology also hosted a high-level round-table discussion between prominent scientists, academics and heads of science councils from both countries.

A booklet covering the major projects of the cooperation was released at a formal dinner attended by South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor and her Indian counterpart, Dr Vardhan.

South Africa and India formalised relations with a bilateral agreement on S&T cooperation in July 1995. Since then, the countries have cooperated on 96 research and development projects worth about R90 million in the areas of astronomy, astrophysics, biotechnology, science and technology policy studies, right-sizing of technologies for rural application, indigenous knowledge systems and energy technologies.

The promotion of solidarity and self-help among countries of the South has been an important feature for many years. Strengthening self-help initiatives among developing countries through cooperation in science and technology and human capacity development on similar experiences and circumstances have remained key themes.

Both South Africa and India have identified South-South relations as strategically important, and seek to give effect to this imperative within various domains.

Addressing the dinner, Minister Pandor said global cooperation remained one of the cornerstones of South Africa's science and technology policy.

"Collaboration with our international partners to share experience and expertise is absolutely essential for South Africa's national innovation system. In this regard I am deeply appreciative of the outstanding cooperation South Africa enjoys with India," said Minister Pandor.

Minister Vardhan said that India and South Africa share a common past that has served to forge an unbreakable bond between our two countries.

"Two of the greatest peace icons of the modern world belonged to India and South Africa. Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi are two men from our two countries whose views on attaining freedom through peace and truth remain as timeless symbols of humanity. Both aimed to unite fractured countries through the solidarity of their words," said Minister Vardhan.

He said the relationship between India and South Africa had progressed beyond historical ties, and their cooperation on S&T was evidence of this.

"Science is the basis of social progress. It is about making life better for people, to improve comfort and productivity," he added.

This social progress is particularly evident in the cooperation on efforts to combat diseases such as HIV/Aids. Both countries have made significant progress in the production of generic antiretroviral drugs.

Minister Pandor lauded India for its ambitious plan to replace its current 21 million petrol cars with electric cars by the year 2030 in an effort to mitigate the effects of climate change.

In 2011 South Africa introduced the South African Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) to deal with climate change. It is the fastest growing renewable energy programme in the world and one of Africa's biggest infrastructure investments.

While the countries celebrated past achievements, they also looked towards the future. During the high-level round table, senior officials from both countries stressed the need to put people at the centre of scientific endeavour.

Dr Arabinda Mitra, Head of Bilateral International Cooperation in India's Department of Science and Technology, emphasised the "need to give science a face", and to do research that has an impact on local problems. This included intensifying efforts to find solutions to diseases.

Dr Mitra said that scientific research and development today is connected with innovation and business

Young people make up a large proportion of the population in both India and South Africa, and both countries acknowledged the critical need to get young people working. It was agreed that entrepreneurship was a huge driver of employment, and that this area should be prioritised.

India and South Africa therefore have a common interest in the promotion and development of grassroots innovation that can provide affordable, accessible and available technological solutions needed by both countries.

Already India has invested heavily in this area, and has established technology incubators to help young people bring their products to market. India has created a new ecosystem of innovation and technology-led entrepreneurship under the national "Start-up India" initiative.

"Innovation and entrepreneurship have become a new mantra in India towards facilitating and enabling inclusive development and sustainable growth," said Dr Mitra.

Last year Minister Pandor announced during her budget vote speech that about R2 million would be spent on a pilot to evolve a model that allowed young innovators to leverage social and economic value from their innovations. Many young and unemployed people use local resources to develop promising technologies and solutions outside formal innovation institutions, and a database of grassroots innovations has been established to help with the identification of support needs and opportunities.

The DST's Grassroots Innovation Programme is aimed at identifying innovators and inventors that do not have a formal education or access to formal facilities. Through this programme individuals are linked to subject experts and advanced facilities where the innovations can be developed towards a commercial model.

Grassroots innovators also receive training in order to assist them in understanding their subject matter better, and to give them the entrepreneurial skills to help them commercialise and market their inventions.

South Africa and India have taken their cooperation a step further by including grassroots innovation, and announced a joint call last week. It is intended to attract young people with innovative technical solutions that can solve local problems.

The joint call should lead to the co-development of products through value addition, validation through product deployment, and market-ready technology transfer with a focus on affordability.

"In this, I see a clear win-win, as both our countries have a rich pool of traditional and indigenous knowledge which can be leveraged by providing the scientific knowledge base required for technology development. This obvious convergence of interest is one on which we can build to foster innovation and techno-entrepreneurship together. This will make our cooperation more visible and impactful," said Minister Vardhan.