Turning ideas into new products and services often requires systematic support from government or business, such as programmes for promoting links between innovators and research and development institutions, innovation hubs and incubators, and investors.
One of these is the department of science and technology’s Grassroots Innovation Programme.
Implemented by the CSIR (an entity of the department), the programme seeks to identify, document and offer appropriate assistance to grass roots innovators and inventors, especially those with no academic background and those who operate outside formal institutions.
Evidence of innovation in informal settings beyond the realms of formal institutions led the department to introduce a pilot programme to support grass roots innovators.
The programme nurtures the chosen individuals, helping them to develop their innovations into businesses and
linking them with subject matter experts and facilities where their inventions can be developed towards a commercial model.
They are also provided with entrepreneurship development skills that give them the knowledge to market their inventions commercially, with a view to boosting the economy and job creation.
In the 2016/17 financial year, the department channelled R2 million towards supporting innovators and technology entrepreneurs in the informal sector and marginalised communities.
One of the innovators supported by the programme is Nkosana Madi from KwaThema, Springs, who developed
an inexpensive hybrid motorised bicycle that speeds up the long commute to work faced by many in low-income communities.
Madi explains that he started making the bikes about five years ago as a mode of transport for himself, and people started showing an interest. Eventually, so many people were asking about them that he realised that he had a business opportunity on his hands.
The Grassroots Innovation Programme gave Madi the opportunity to attend the Festival of Innovation in India in March 2017.
The festival is an initiative of the Office of the President of India. It recognises and rewards grass roots innovations and fosters a supportive environment for innovators.
India, Malaysia, other Asian countries and some Latin American countries have also taken deliberate steps to ensure that their science, technology and innovation systems are inclusive, responsive and able to support innovation in various sectors of society.
Reflecting on his participation at the festival, Madi said networking was an important step for innovators. He built relationships with other innovators and is certain that his invention is going to the next level in terms of development and retailing.
“In India I learnt that people innovate out of necessity. Some of their innovations use indigenous knowledge, which is something we should start looking at in South Africa as well,” he said.
Madi considers the festival a valuable opportunity to develop products relating to the automotive industry, and a platform for future business. His plan is to have a fully fledged workshop and warehouse to mass-produce his product.
Another innovator supported by the Grassroots Innovation Programme is Melusi Ntuli, from Pietermaritzburg, who developed a chargeless electric engine.
His innovation started with a sketch and research carried out with support from professors at Durban University of Technology (where Ntuli studied industrial engineering), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
He was advised to make a demonstration model of his power self-direct current motor, which is the main component of his chargeless engine.
Working with experts helped Ntuli realise that when the motor and the engine are put together, the engine can operate in helicopters and other aircraft.
His biggest dream is to see the invention recognised as an option worldwide because it is energy efficient – an important consideration in view of global warming.
Nonhlanhla Mkhize, chief director of innovation for inclusive development at the department of science and technology, says the Grassroots Innovation Programme emphasises the importance of a responsive national system of innovation which is accessible to all innovators, regardless of their race, gender, age, level of education or geographic location.
Through this pilot programme, the department and relevant institutions are able to support all kinds of innovation and ensure the inclusion of innovators who operate outside the confines of formal science, technology and innovation institutions.
She says the department is working with various organisations to support grass roots innovators in various fields including the health, cosmetics, manufacturing and renewable energy sectors.
The programme made its first call for applications in September 2016.
The department and its partners are working together to develop a shared database which will improve responsiveness and ensure that appropriate support is provided. Moreover, it is hoped that the database will contribute towards the protection of innovators’ intellectual property.
It is anticipated that the Grassroots Innovation Programme will build and strengthen innovation skills and expertise in many of the fields required for the development, running and management of modern economies.
For more information about this programme, contact the department of science and technology on 012 843 6300.