Programme Director;

Mr Mmboneni Muofhe, Deputy Director-General at the Department of Science and Technology;

Other officials from the Department;

Distinguished guests;

Ladies and gentlemen: 

I would like to welcome all of you to the launch of the Grassroots Innovation Programme.  I would like to thank the Department of Science and Technology (DST) team that put this launch together. 

 

There is a lesser known story of an extraordinary African-American inventor named Lewis Howard Latimer.  In his lifetime, Latimer was responsible for a number of significant inventions. His greatest invention was the carbon filament, a vital component of the light bulb.  Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb, great as it was at the time, faced a challenge.  The challenge was that the Edison light bulb had a very short lifespan, generally lasting only a few days.  It was Latimer's invention that gave the bulb a longer lifespan, making it less expensive and more efficient.  And it was this invention that enabled electric lighting to be installed in homes and on the streets.

 

So talented was Latimer that Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, could not think of a better partner to help him draft the patent for his design of the telephone.  Latimer's genius did not stop there; he also designed an improved railroad car bathroom, and an early air conditioning unit which he called the Apparatus for Cooling and Disinfecting.  In 1894, he created a safety elevator, a vast improvement on existing elevators at the time.  Thereafter, he secured a patent for his Locking Racks for Hats, Coats, and Umbrellas.

 

What makes Lewis Latimer's story interesting, besides the fact that he was responsible for some of the greatest inventions of modern times, is that he was barely educated.  He was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848 to George and Rebecca Latimer, runaway slaves who had migrated to Massachusetts from Virginia in 1842.  At the age of 16, during the Civil War, Latimer enlisted in the United States navy, and on his return accepted a menial position in a patent law office.  He taught himself mechanical drawing by observing the work of the draftsmen at the firm.

 

The circumstances in which Latimer was born would, in most cases, have conspired to ensure that his genius went to waste.  It was by sheer luck that he got the opportunity to work in a patent office that gave him the breakthrough he needed to showcase his talents.  For all we know, there were many like him who were not so fortunate.

 

The establishment of the Grassroots Innovation Programme (GIP) was borne of a realisation by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) that there are many Lewis Latimers in our various communities; that there are many whose circumstances of birth will – unless something is done to assist them – prevent them from making a positive contribution to our society, geniuses though they may be.

 

The Grassroots Innovation Programme is designed to identify innovators and inventors who do not have a formal education and/or access to formal innovation facilities.  Through the programme, these innovators will be linked to subject matter experts and advanced facilities where their innovations/inventions will be further developed to support market entry.  They will be provided with skills development programmes to understand their subject matter better, and with entrepreneurship development skills to provide them with the knowledge to commercially market their inventions.

 

In this context, the GIP is a strategic programme aimed at achieving an inclusive system of innovation.  A grassroots innovator is defined as an individual who undertakes innovations to solve local challenges using local resources and capabilities, working outside the realm of formal innovation and research institutions.

 

The assistance provided to the grassroots innovators will include technical skills development, research and development (R&D), prototype development, entrepreneurship development, access to markets, technology development, product development, software support, quality management systems, modelling and simulation, intellectual property (IP) protection, knowledge and skills transfer, design and tooling machinery, as well as access to technical expertise.

 

In most instances, the GIP will utilise specialised technology stations to provide technical support to grassroots innovators.  The Institute for Advanced Tooling, based at the Tshwane University of Technology's Soshanguve South Campus, is one of the technology stations supported by the DST through the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA).  It is a centre for skills development and technology transfer diffusion that was created in order to accelerate the country's growth in the tooling and manufacturing sector.  The core business of the technology station is to promote sustainable tooling in collaboration with leading international tool making private institutions, academia, and the South African tooling industry.

 

The White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, which has just been approved as our policy, strengthens the importance of the GIP.  It also reiterates that the long-term policy direction for government is to ensure a growing role for science, technology and innovation in a more prosperous and inclusive society.

 

The White Paper specifically states that the national system of innovation should support inclusive development, including social and grassroots innovation.  It states that all sectors of society should be enabled to equitably access the country's knowledge infrastructure, to participate in creating and advancing innovation opportunities, and to share in the benefits of innovation.

 

We will call on the public sector to become an enabler for the GIP by providing markets for products developed through this programme.  We will speak to our colleagues in the provinces and local municipalities to ensure that their plans provide an enabling environment for grassroots innovations.  We will also ensure that our science councils and technology stations serve as innovation intermediaries in support of the GIP.

 

The success of the GIP will also require the active involvement of civil society as a source of innovation, information sharing, networks, intelligence, and market access opportunities.  Working together, we can ensure that the objectives of the national roll-out of the GIP are achieved.  These objectives are –

 

  •            to increase participation in the country's knowledge infrastructure;
  •            to realise tangible economic benefits, such as helping grassroots innovators to become sustainable, profitable businesses;
  •            to collaborate with other stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem, including entrepreneur support organisations and   

               instruments in the private sector, to raise additional funding for innovations; and

  •           to foster effective linkages between the GIP, private sector entities and other government initiatives that could support and

complement the expansion of grassroots activities in the nine provinces, and to formalise such partnerships.

A Grassroots Innovation call was published on the TIA website in January 2019, inviting the submission of innovations from grassroots level.  About 300 applications were received from all nine provinces.  Most of the proposals received were in the information and communication technologies sector.  This indicates the potential of grassroots innovators to develop smart innovations to ensure the inclusivity of marginalised communities in preparation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

 

The TIA is in the process of concluding the assessment of proposals received from the grassroots innovators.  In the audience today, we have the first cohort of eight grassroots innovators whose innovations have been approved for funding through the GIP.  They are: Mandla Dlamini, Tsholofelo Lesufi, Manie Jooste, Busisiwe Ndabane, Prudence Msunga, Ashleigh Manyara, Siphiwe Zuma, and Thareshnee Govender.

 

With limited resources, the Grassroots Innovation Programme will go a long way towards ensuring that we make the national system of innovation inclusive, and help us to solve our societal challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.  In the words of Steve Jobs: "Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have.  When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D.  It's not about money.  It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it."

 

I thank you.

 

Mr Imraan Patel is the Deputy Director-General: Socio-economic Innovation Partnerships at the Department of Science and Technology.