Party was good; where is the return gift?

by | Jun 1, 2019

It was in November 2018 that Anurag Srivastava, the engineer-turned-diplomat Ambassador of India to Ethiopia, took me to Dr. Getahun Mekuria, the engineer-turned-Minister of Innovation and Technology, Ethiopia. Riding in a Land Rover from the Indian Embassy to the Ministry with the Indian flag on the bonnet fluttering in the cold breeze of Addis Ababa, situated at an elevation of around 8000 feet, was surreal and most gratifying.

Dr. Mekuria briefed us as to why Ethiopia had renamed their Ministry of Science and Technology as Ministry of Innovation and Technology. Ethiopia, the biggest country in Africa with a population of more than 100 million, needed innovative and indigenous solutions to solve the problems of its people, thus avoiding imports, for which they had no money. He shared with us the idea of celebrating the Innovation Festival every year and inviting a country to showcase their technology, starting with China. Naturally, we suggested starting with India, and Dr. Mekuria most graciously agreed.

In February 2019, Dr. Getahun came to Hyderabad and signed the papers for the launch of the India-Ethiopia Innovation, Science and Technology Commercialization Programme, in the presence of Dr. Harsh Vardhan, our physician-turned-Union Minister of Science & Technology, Earth Sciences and Environment, Forests & Climate Change, from the platform of the sixth DST-FICCI Global R&D Summit. I was seated in the audience, applauding with the others at the gala event.

It is a great feeling to see India being wooed by Africa for science and technology. I had completed my higher education at the G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, an institution modelled on the land-grant model of the University of Illinois. Equipment and books tagged with USAID were everywhere. Most of the faculty had been to US Universities. When a food crisis hit the country in the mid 1970s, American agronomist Norman Borlaug (1914—2009) became a household name in India for his high-yield wheat variety.

All bright students from IITs and other scientific institutions would, by default, go to the USA for higher studies and eventually settle there. Name any senior scientist at any Indian institution of today and he would have been to an American or European University for education or research. Then came computers and the ICT revolution and Indians were everywhere. Vinod Khosla (b. 1955) co-founded Sun Microsytems. Arun Sarin (b. 1954) became the CEO of Vodafone, Rajeev Suri (b. 1967) became the CEO of Nokia. As of now, Satya Nadella (b. 1967) is the CEO of Microsoft, Sundar Pichai (b. 1972) is the CEO of Google and Ajaypal ‘Ajay’ Singh Banga (b. 1960) is the President and CEO of Mastercard.

India took up innovation in a serious manner. APJ Abdul Kalam (1931–2015) and Raghunath Mashelkar (b. 1943) nurtured hundreds of affordable world-class products in India. A.V. Rama Rao (b. 1935) pioneered the development of affordable pharmaceuticals. T. Ramasamy (b. 1948) revolutionized leather-processing technology. A. Mohan Rao (b. 1945) produced automobile grade biogas from sugar mill waste. At no other place in the world would these developments have taken place, as they concerned the needs of the poor and not the markets. We have the MedTech Innovation Centre at IIIT, Hyderabad, where Ramesh Loganathan and Radha Rangarajan are developing medical products based on cutting-edge technology. Rajeev Varshney at ICRISAT is one of the world’s top-notch seed genetic scientists.

So I rejoice at the launch of the India-Ethiopia Innovation, Science and Technology Commercialization Programme at Addis Ababa on May 24, 2019, by Ambassador Srivastava, a zealous champion of India in Africa. Thanks to a very large number of Indians who made a great mark in science and technology at the global level, India has done well in creating a robust system of innovation through our councils of medical research, industrial research and agricultural research. We had a grand party indeed, thanks to a generation of scientists who were protégés of people sitting in global labs who shook their trees to yield fruits, whenever needed. It is time to give a return gift as a token of recognition and appreciation of the same.

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5 Comments

  1. CSIR India has nurtured literally hundreds of technologies, many in the Agri Sector that are of direct relevance to Africa. A joint innovation support platform could do wonders!

  2. While technology has spirited up innovations and creativity, it is more important that these technologies are used at the grass root level and sustainable business models are developed to cater to the needs of the poor and the needy. The relentless work of our scientific community has been successful in developing indigenous technologies which can make a positive impact and address the above problem. It is here that I believe that systemic changes and mindset adaptations are essential to see how these indigenous technologies are rolled out in an efficient way. Prof Arun Tiwari, in this article, has depicted the works of many scientific people and the positive impact it has created in our system. Strongly believe that the true “return gift” for all the scientists will be if their technologies are deployed across the country to address the needs of the underserved. It will be a matter of pride if such technologies reach the African continent and a grave concern if not utilized well in India.

  3. This made a beautiful reading. The Indian flag decorating a British innovation much to the pleasure of Dr. Merkuria, a DAAD alumni, who had the impulse to bring German technologies and Indian collaborations into his country is a story to exhale and inhale incessantly not by scientists or researchers or diplomats but by all. Doubtlessly, any reader is sure to catch fire at your words. ‘Innovation’ is indeed a powerful tool that helps us live the philosophy of the connected world. Reading through your thoughts reinstate the belief that innovation is humanistic, participatory, non-hierarchial and passable. I wish your understanding bring about systemic changes that run from individual scientists to community to government and beyond.

  4. Prof Tiwari jee, “return gift” is a very powerful thought not only for yougsters but also for our elders, to empower our nation. Hope the message reaches the masses and with a few initiators, a mass movement could be achieved.

  5. Very nicely interpreted Sir

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