Global Innovation Index (2021) Rankings – African Countries Decline Compared to Previous Years

Annually, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a United Nations specialised agency together with Cornell University and INSEAD, publish the Global Innovation Index (GII). The GII is a ranking of countries based on 81 indicators (in 2021) compiled under seven pillars in two sub-indices – the Innovation Input Sub-Index and the Innovation Output Sub-Index, as shown below. The Input Sub-Index comprises five pillars, representing elements of a national economy that enable innovative activities. On other hand, there are two pillars in the Output Sub-Index, focused on the result of innovative activities within the economy. The GII highlights success and capacity in innovation (strengths and weaknesses), and gaps, within national innovation.

On 20th September 2021, the GII 2021 themed Tracking Innovation through the COVID-19 Crisis was published providing rankings of 132 economies. This is the second GII rankings to be published during the Covid-19 pandemic, following the GII 2020 published the 13th edition of the GII in September 2020, which ranked 131 economies. Perhaps what is of importance in the 2021 rankings is to see whether any of the countries, particularly those in Africa, have been able to take advantage of the crisis presented by the Covid-19 pandemic to focus on innovation. Many developed countries have used crisis in the past, including world wars, to increase investments in inputs into innovation, to catalyse innovation outputs that then have an impact on the economy. More importantly, as countries move from containment caused by lockdowns to economic recovery, innovation will become critical.

There is very little surprise in the top ranked countries compared to 2020. These spots remain dominated by Switzerland, Sweden, and United States of America, United Kingdom. The Republic of Korea has jumped to 5th place from 10th in 2020, displacing the Netherlands to 6th position. Other countries amongst the top 10 are Finland, Singapore, Denmark, and Germany. China, Japan, Israel, are ranked 12th, 13th, and 15th, respectively.

The leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa remain South Africa, Mauritius, Kenya, and United Republic of Tanzania. South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania are ranked as the most innovative countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, based on their performance relative to their level of development or income levels. Rwanda leads the global ranking of low-income group countries, followed by Malawi. South Africa leads most of the African countries, barring Mauritius, in respect of the GII ranking, largely because of a higher ranking in Innovation Input Sub-Index. However, South Africa (68) lags Mauritius (58), Tunisia (64), Tanzania (65) and Morocco (67) in terms of the Innovation Output Sub-Index, despite being highly ranked in the Innovation Input-Sub-Index. This suggests lower efficiencies within the South African innovation system. Relative to its overall ranking, South Africa ranks poorly on several factors: Creative Outputs (79), Infrastructure (83), Human Capital (61). Conversely, South Africa’s strengths are in Market Sophistication (23), Business Sophistication (51) and Institutions (55). In general, most of the African countries regressed in their GII ranking possibly because of the impact of Covid-19 pandemic and inability to turn the crisis into an opportunity to innovate. Conversely, the other countries performed better whilst the African countries remained stagnant. Perhaps it is too early to thus conclude?

So why bother with the GII? For starters, innovation is generally recognised as being a critical driver of economic growth and development. This is evidenced by its importance in many developed or high-income countries, that have vibrant innovation ecosystems, which has resulted in enhanced technological capabilities, innovative products, and services as well as high Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. In this regard, the GII provides useful insights on countries’ innovation performance and provides useful data to inform evidence-based policy making, so that countries can improve their innovation performance compared to their peers. In this regard, countries may then design appropriate innovation and intellectual property policies to enable them to shape the innovation agenda. In this regard, it is now common to hear the word innovation mentioned several times in national development plans and annual addresses by politicians in many countries. This is a recognition that those nations that innovate have a better chance of being competitive, building more resilient economies and raising the standards of living for their people. Innovation has also become associated with efficiencies and potential job losses, as some jobs become obsolete because of technologies of the future, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, additive manufacturing, but to name a few. Notwithstanding, society is a better world today, because of innovation. Given underdeveloped innovation ecosystems in Africa, it is important to ensure that innovation is inclusive and does not just focus on technological innovation but focus on expanding the capacity to generate, acquire and apply knowledge to benefit society.

For Africa with high youthful population, innovation is critical to give hope to young people, as a path for them to realise their dreams. The rankings have consistently confirmed that the more developed an economy the more it innovates and vice versa. This is evident from the leaders in the ranking and more so, how countries such as Korea and China have improved their rankings and strengthened their economies by focusing on innovation. What can African countries learn from the most innovative countries? At the launch of the GII2021, H.E. Ms. Stina Billinger, State Secretary, Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation, Sweden, commenting on what makes Sweden one of the most innovative countries highlighted three things: i) Trust – in institutions, international cooperation and entrepreneurs thus enabling them to take risks, ii) Strong history of investing in people – education and building a secure state, and iii) Gender Equality – maximising the diversity of its people in all aspects of society. What also stands out amongst the highly ranked countries is the need to let innovators innovate without too much asking for permission (beware of overregulating, it stifles innovation). With the advent of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the need to industrialise more economies in Africa, the GII is a useful dashboard for countries to better understand areas that need improvement and the ones they need to capitalise on, for their economies to be more globally competitive, and be attractive hubs for talent and innovation. In my book FootprintsLaying the Path Intellectual Property for Innovation and Economic Development, I reflect on the opportunities presented by the AfCFTA and observe that “… it is important to realise that the vision of African countries trading with each other and thus unlocking the value of its industries, can only be realised through embracing intellectual property, innovation and building businesses that produce goods and services with more African content, that can be traded across Africa.” For us to do that, we must use the GII as a guiding tool to strengthen our innovation ecosystems, by paying close attention not only to the seven pillars comprising the Innovation Input and Output Sub-Indices, but to all the 80 indicators within the seven pillars.

Dr McLean Sibanda is Managing Director of Bigen Global Limited, an innovation and entrepreneurship specialist, and author of two books Nuts & Bolts and Footprints.