Traditional knowledge, a neglected asset for African development

Traditional knowledge, a neglected asset for African development

Friday, 25 March, 2011

There’s an old African saying that goes: “When an elder dies, a whole library is burnt”. Africa has a rich heritage of procedures, techniques and recipes providing solutions specific to particular environments and local conditions. Mostly transmitted orally from generation to generation, this so-called traditional and indigenous knowledge is under threat.

The vast majority of efforts to accelerate development on the African continent and relieve poverty focus on ‘imported’ solutions: modern technologies that have been used successfully in the Western world are applied to African countries in the hope of triggering comparable results. However, experience has revealed the limitations of this approach.

Tradition versus innovation: a common misconception

“The belief that traditional knowledge is no good and that modern technologies and tools are better is propagated wrongly in many situations throughout our formal education and socialisation systems,” explains Vera Brenda Ngosi, Director of the Department of Human Resources, Science and Technology of the African Union. “Our African culture and heritage tend to be intentionally discarded, leaving room for imported ones, creating a new world order where the old is regarded as primitive and archaic.”

There are numerous reasons why the traditional solutions are often better adapted to an African context. First of all, the high cost of new technologies is a major obstacle to their deployment at a large scale. On the other hand, traditional procedures are often labour-intensive. While this is a major drawback in a context where labour is expensive, it can even be an added value for African countries where employment is an important issue.

The aspect of cost and accessibility for instance plays an important role when it comes to choosing medical treatment: “More than 80% of Africans use some form of traditional or herbal medicine for their basic healthcare needs,” Ms Ngosi points out, stressing that traditional medicine is not just a makeshift treatment that African populations resort to in the absence of modern medication. “Traditional medicine is an important source of material and information for the development of new drugs,” she says. “It can significantly reduce the amount of research necessary for the development of modern medicines. According to WHO estimates, 25 % of modern medicines are made from plants first used traditionally.”

New, technologically advanced solutions can be created based on the conception of the traditional one.

Pietro Laureano

The example shows that where traditional knowledge and innovation go hand-in-hand, significant benefits can be achieved. This view is shared by Pietro Laureano, architect and UNESCO consultant directing IPOGEA’s Research Centre on Local and Traditional Knowledge in Italy: “I don’t think that the techniques need to be reused in an identical way,” he explains. “It is the conception that needs to be preserved, and it can be applied to innovative solutions. New, technologically advanced solutions can be created based on the conception of the traditional one.”

Tailor-made solutions

Indigenous know-how has developed in response to a local context and can therefore provide for solutions taking into account all the elements at play. An example from the field of agriculture is a system for water retention relying on terraced fields with stone walls, a traditional method used in many African countries. The system allows for rain harvesting, keeps the soil fertile and protects biodiversity while blending harmoniously into the landscape. As Mr Laureano explains, an ‘imported’ solution such as concrete walls would not provide a suitable alternative: besides the aesthetical aspect, the method would be too costly in terms of water and energy consumption.

There is a lack of awareness of the usefulness of traditional knowledge, and a lack of means and strategies to harness it.

Ms Vera Brenda Ngosi

The long list of benefits that traditional knowledge has to offer triggers the question why it is not used more extensively in development policies. Apart from the introduction of new solutions supplanting traditional methods rather then integrating them, there is a risk of losing huge chunks of knowledge through changes in the traditional way of life. Since the knowledge is transmitted orally, changes in the fabric of local communities such as younger generations moving to urban centres involve the loss of ancient traditions and know-how. “There is a lack of awareness of the usefulness of traditional knowledge, and a lack of means and strategies to harness it,” Ms Vera Brenda Ngosi summarises. “Information on traditional knowledge is not readily available to planners and policy makers. A continuous and consistent erosion of the knowledge is observed in almost all African countries.”

Documentation, protection and dissemination

To halt this process, it is necessary to ensure that the traditional procedures and methods are properly documented, and that the African ownership of this heritage is recognised and preserved through appropriate protection of intellectual property, as well as through the fight against bio-piracy. These steps would lay the basis for promoting the use of this knowledge. “The situation could be turned around by adopting a system that incorporates local, indigenous, or traditional and scientific knowledge in our approach to planning and problem solving,” Ms Ngosi explains. In her view, there is a need for combining measures at local and national level to achieve the appropriate framework: “The need to empower local custodians of traditional knowledge […] can never be overemphasised.  […] At national level, there is a need to put in place governmental agencies whose role is to promote the dissemination of knowledge […]. Establishing public collections in museums or other facilities is also important.”

The planned creation of a Pan-African Intellectual Property Organisation is an important step towards better recognition and protection of the knowledge. In the field of documentation and dissemination, the setting-up of the Traditional Knowledge World Bank (TKWB) is a major achievement. It consists of a free-of-charge searchable database to which everybody can contribute. “We put in place a system identifying each type of knowledge with a clear icon and indicating the places where this particular type of knowledge is used with the help of maps,” Mr Laureano explains. “The idea is to create a social network through which the knowledge is disseminated.” The TKWB will be ready to go live before the end of 2011; a prototypical system is currently being tested.

Supported by UNESCO, the TKWB is managed by IPOGEA, a body working for the safeguard and enhancement of cultural heritage. It receives funding in the framework of EU-financed projects, a UNESCO contribution as well as through five private foundations.

In the framework of the partnership between the EU and Africa, the protection of traditional knowledge has been recognised as a field in which more action is needed. In October 2008, a project aimed at ‘Securing and Using Africa’s Indigenous and Traditional Knowledge’ was included in the ‘Book of Lighthouse Projects’ identifying priorities in the framework of the partnership on science, information society and space.