Botswana’s own Silicon Valley is making all the right noises in all the right places. For a small African country, the highly ambitious project packs quite a promise to have global science and technology players wanting in on the action. The Botswana Innovation Hub’s (BIH) state-of-the-art science and technology park is charting a refreshing trajectory for a country reeling from an implementation crisis that runs into billions of Pula, and lost opportunities.
Even before the main contractor is named, the 388 member strong international association of science parks and areas of innovation (IASP), which has a presence in 69 countries, has bought the locals’ story. IASP has given BIH a rare opportunity to host the 2014 IASP African division conference April 9-11, 2014 themed science and technology parks – expanding economic frontiers in Africa. The gesture is a confidence boost for BIH which is yet to become a fully fledged member of the prestigious organisation.
“We are an affiliate member because we do not have a science park yet,” explains BIH public relations and communications manager, Tigele Mokobi. “We really lobbied to have the conference in Botswana,” he says. By the conference, Mokobi is referring to science and technology industry leaders, experts, academia and business captains from across the world who will for the two days drop everything for Gaborone. Here they will discuss trends and issues relating to science parks, economic diversification, innovation and sustainability.
The event will bring the focus to Botswana and our park. It will shine a light on programmes that we have begun to run even before construction of the park is complete. We will take delegates to the park site so that they can see progress already made,” says Mokobi. “It is a big marketing opportunity. We are bringing global players here. We already have confirmations from across the world. There will be global representation.” The conference has a foreign direct investment (FDI) pitch to it as well. “The international global players will be able to see business opportunities that exist in Botswana. Local business will also have an opportunity to network and find business partners. Developers in our incubation centre will be able to learn from the experience of others,” he says.
The IASP may have found it difficult not to be affected by the commitment of the BIH to the project. The development of the multi-million Pula Botswana science and technology park, located in a 57 hectare site near Sir Seretse Khama international airport, is well on schedule. Mokobi says tendering for the main works is ongoing. “The park is fully serviced with roads, storm water drainage, water, electricity and telecommunication infrastructure. Earthworks are underway and tendering for the main contractor is ongoing. We are on schedule,” he announces.
Two boreholes have already been drilled at the park to ensure that the occupants of the park are never without water. A substation has also been set up to generate power for the smooth running of the park. “Science and technology park will offer its occupants uninterrupted supply of water, internet and electricity,” he says. The park is set to provide state-of-the-art buildings and facilities to attract domestic, regional and global companies, universities, research and advanced training institutes to locate business as well as research and development activities within the park, and promote technology-based innovation and entrepreneurship. The park will offer high quality road infrastructure, street lighting, as well as power and ICT connectivity.
An additional 36 hectares of land will be available for light industrial purposes. The park also offers 40 plots of varying sizes available for lease. The iconic building will have 24 000 square metres of space for rent with flexible rental office and laboratory spaces ranging from 50 square metres to 1000 square metres.
The BIH has a three-pronged national strategic goal – economic diversification, job creation and moving the country towards a knowledge-based economy. Companies and institutions that register with BIH are entitled to networking, research and technical collaboration opportunities locally and internationally, a concessionary 15 percent corporate tax rate, eligibility to import specialised skills and personnel under a special BIH dispensation, access to the innovation fund run by BIH as well as access to a range of technology transfer and commercialisation services.
“It’s a battlefield out there,” he responds when asked if the tax regimen that is their value proposition would not militate against Botswana’s efforts to shed off the perception that it is a tax haven. “If you look at what other countries are offering to attract the same players we are looking for, you would see that competition is tough. We are even competing with developed countries which offer far higher tax incentives than we do,” he says.
The project has survived sentiment that it is too ambitious an undertaking to survive spending cuts that came with the global economic recession at the close of the last decade. Government however powered through and a cabinet directive established the Botswana innovation hub and Botswana innovation hub property companies in 2010. “The park will be built in phases,” Mokobi reveals, adding that the construction and maintenance phases of the park will create jobs. Mokobi reveals that developers and other innovators working with the BIH will help boost the economy as their innovations address real socio-economic problems, and create employment for young upstarts.
“Some of our incubatees have created geo-spatial cattle tracking devices to help address the problem of cattle that roam the streets and cause road carnage. This will help a lot as cattle are the backbone of the economy,” he says.
The BIH has four focus sectors – information and communications technology and ICT-enabled services, energy and environment (clean technology), mining technologies and beneficiation as well as biotechnology. While a significant number of companies already signed up to occupy parts of the park, some are already at the BOTEC office suite where BIH is temporarily accommodated.
One is the Microsoft innovation centre, which came about as a result of a partnership between BIH and the Microsoft corporation. The centre supports and facilitates research and development, education and innovation activities in ICT. It supports start-up ventures and assists existing companies to grow. “We are currently in discussion with government over the Kitsonet programme, which is designed to assist government employees and students to acquire laptops, handsets and software,” he says.
He explains that the idea is to ensure that the gadgets are accessible in the home environment to engender wide use of ICT. “Going forward internet will be free so our people need devices to access internet. Internet will support education and boost the country’s competitiveness as internet connectivity is an indicator of competitiveness,” he says.
BIH also has a partner in the Southern Africa innovation support (SAIS) programme, which promotes collaboration within the innovation systems of African countries in order to provide greater impact on economic and social development. The programme is currently being run in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa from 2011 to 2015. Mokobi says that through the programme, they host monthly innovation cafes, which deal with various topical issues in science and innovation.
“SAIS also looks at intellectual property and a wide range of issues in the innovation, science and technology ecosystem,” he says.BIH has also partnered with Lund University and Krinova science park in Sweden to establish a clean tech centre of expertise programme with support from the Swedish government through the Swedish international development agency (SIDA). The programme, domiciled within BIH, entails coming up with innovations and technologies for a greener, cleaner, low carbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive development path.
BIH also has a partnership with The ocuncil on health research for development (COHRED), an independent international foundation headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The partnership seeks to promote research and development for health, equity and development in Botswana and Africa in general.