Mapping the hi-tech road for SA

1 October 2004

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has released a wide-ranging study on global technology trends, which aims to find ways to address the challenges of unemployment, inequalities and economic growth in South Africa.

According to the study, conducted by Access Market International and Bluepeter Management Consulting, South Africa has over the past decades developed a vast technological base, giving it the opportunity to compete effectively internationally.

At the same time, there exists enormous potential to exploit and leverage selected technologies to promote business growth.



The study says it is essential that South Africa implement its technology strategy so that technology is applied to the maximum benefit of the country.

It highlights key technologies influencing the development of several sectors, and also reviews the support mechanisms applied by various governments to improve the ability of countries to benefit from whatever technological developments may occur over the next 10 years.

The findings of the study are intended to develop South Africa’s technological capacity in strategic technology areas, and to empower industry sectors to identify possible opportunities – and threats.

Innovation the key
Speaking at the launch of the report, DTI director-general Alistair Ruiters said there has been a growing awareness among entrepreneurs, policy makers and scientists that innovation should be at the centre of business and policy strategies in South Africa.

He said it remains the driving force behind any country’s economic development and the improvement of the competitiveness of firms.

“If we want to effectively build a modern society, an appropriate route would be to follow a technology-driven approach”, Ruiters said. “This approach should be based on various science applications that would grow our technological capabilities, in both the first and second economies, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of lives of our people and improving the competitiveness of our industries.”

He added that “without much knowledge and guidelines on the global technological trends, it becomes difficult to direct our innovative capabilities necessary for industrial development.”

Findings by sector
The study deals with the following key sectors:

Information communication technologies
According to the study, the future global ICT landscape will involve very unobtrusive hardware, a seamless mobile/fixed communications infrastructure, dynamic and massively distributed device networks, and natural feeling human interfaces in a secure, ubiquitous computing environment.

It argues that several emerging technologies will be crucial to the development of the ICT sector in South Africa. These are:

  • Mobile technologies and devices
  • Wireless network technologies
  • Human language technologies
  • Open source software
  • Telemedicine
  • Geomatics
  • Manufacturing technologies (robotics/artificial intelligence)
  • Grid computing
  • Radio frequency identification

The study shows that what it calls “prominent enabling technologies” are revolutionising the tourism environment, allowing for more flexibility and accessibility. It says South Africa’s tourism industry needs to use technology to improve productivity in reaching a broad and diverse customer base.

While South Africa was ranked 25th by the World Trade Organisation in a list of top tourism destinations in 2000, the study says that technologies can assist in achieving sustainability and growth in the sector.

Important technologies in this respect include: ICTs, environmental technologies (which include fuel efficiency and cleaner production processes), renewable resources, and cultural heritage technologies (for training, content development and delivery).

Cultural sector
The study argues that the cultural industry is a large global industry and has a huge potential for job creation, while offering an opportunity to develop underdeveloped regions.

New and original industries emerge not necessarily from the use of new technologies, but from creativity, skills or traditional materials. This makes crafts and tourism-related industries a springboard for development.

The study argues that although cultural industries are an important part of South Africa’s economy, there are constraints causing a backlog.

A major concern is that the sector does not have appropriate training and skills development, that urbanisation is causing a lack of transfer of traditional skills within families, that there is a lack of knowledge management, and that research and development is minimal.

Other constraints include access to raw materials, finance and support services, and problems in areas relating to marketing, infrastructure and production

The most important technologies which are an incremental part of developing the sector are enabling communication technologies, technologies which improve products, and technologies that provide marketing to the end-consumer.

The convergence of several key industry trends has accelerated the pace of change in the agroprocessing industry.

In response to declining profits, producers are developing new products with higher margins and functions, new uses for old products and waste streams, and incorporating cutting-edge production technologies.

Meanwhile, customer consumption habits are shifting and demanding new products such as organic produce and functional foods. On top of this, outside stakeholders, including government, are demanding an improvement to the environmental performance of the agriculture industry.

The study identifies numerous key research and technology developments for the sector, including:

  • Real-time detection of micro-organisms in food, using a variety of methods.
  • Sensors for online, real-time control and monitoring of food processing.
  • DNA/ RNA chip technologies.
  • Techniques to inactivate micro-organisms to yield safer foods with extended shelf lives.
  • Standardised edible food packaging films.
  • Biologicals (eg bacteriocins) and chemical inhibitors to prevent or slow growth of pathogens in food.
  • Technologies for food traceability.

The study says among the most critical technologies for South Africa are those that enable food traceability and minimise food wastage.

South Africa has a small bioeconomy, although biotechnologies are widely used in a number of industrial sectors, including food and beverages and waste water treatment.

The emphasis in South Africa is still at the research and development level, the application of a new set of technologies and the application of the technology tools by defined sectors.

According to the study, the most important areas for further development include:

  • Recombinant therapeutic products
  • Vaccines
  • Diagnostics
  • Commodity chemicals from biomass
  • Energy from Renewable Resources
  • Biocatalysts

The study says priority technologies span the various stages of new product and service development, extending from discovery to manufacture, but with more emphasis on discovery.

The study finds that while specialty chemicals will be significantly influenced by nanoscience and biotechnology in the future, the changes envisaged for basic chemicals (ie petrochemicals, bulk polymers and fertilisers) are based more on evolutionary development.

Disruptive innovations are difficult in the basic chemicals industry, since they have to fit in with the existing infrastructure of the industry.

According to the study, the global trend towards convergence of different strands of science and technology, and knowledge transference between different materials and scientific fields, will strengthen in the future.

The most important emerging technologies on the global landscape include materials technology, biotechnology and nano-technology.

The study identifies key interventions considered to have a major potential benefit for the local industry, including:

  • The development of a new industry based on the extraction of minerals from coal ash and low-value slag.
  • The development of a new range of performance chemicals that will improve the recovery of minerals in the mining sector.
  • The establishment of a new technology platform that will develop technologies to decrease economies of scale for chemical plants and hence enable smaller production facilities to compete.
  • A major initiative to build South Africa’s first generic pharmaceutical actives plant in order to meet future demand for antibiotics and/or anti-retrovirals.
  • A highly integrated strategy to fully develop South Africa’s ability to add maximum value to its natural products and unique biodiversity.

The study says there is little doubt that the aerospace industry can make South Africa a leader in innovation and emerging technologies.

The industry is a key driver behind technological and economic growth, and is seen as an incubator for critical and pervasive technologies.

Six technologies were highlighted as being important for the continuous development and growth of the sector. These are:

  • The development of composite materials.
  • The development of hyper aero-thermodynamics.
  • The development of sensor usage.
  • Health and usage monitoring systems.
  • Noise abatement.
  • Improved manufacturing processes.

Clothing and textiles
Technological development is one of the most significant factors contributing to a shift in demand in the clothing and textiles sector, with other sectors – such as the aeronautics and automotive sectors – having created new demands on the textiles industry.

For example, sensory fabrics for seating comfort, and resin-reinforced fabrics to replace metal components in light-weight vehicles, are now needed.

The growing demand for “intelligent”, high-performance textiles has created new opportunities in the textiles sector. However the study finds that industries in established markets have been slow to respond to this demand.

It says that South Africa has a comparative advantage in the natural fibres segment of the clothing and textile sector. Value-add technologies already in use include:

  • Testing systems for foreign fibres in Mohair and wool.
  • Yarn formation, and long and short staple systems.
  • Dying and finishing technologies.

According to the study, the market from plant fibres is growing globally. Hemp, flax and similar products are in abundance in South Africa. Processing of plant fibres thus becomes a critical niche market that South Africa has an opportunity to exploit.

Metals and minerals
The metals and minerals sector is mature worldwide, with little major innovation taking place. The current technology trends are towards incremental improvements in the various value chain processes.

The purpose of innovation, especially in the heavy metals sector, is to ensure business sustainability within the commoditised market. Emphasis is placed on aspects such as the improved use of gravel as a form of ore, the improved extraction of lower grade ore by developing improved reduction and extraction techniques, and the more efficient use of energy.

There is, however, more innovative work being done in the light metals sector, specifically aluminium, magnesium, titanium and the development of alloys. Downstream possibilities of these metals are large enough to warrant significant levels of research and development.

According to the study, one of the major focus areas of this trend is the development of a cheaper, continuous extraction processes for magnesium and titanium.

Automative sector
Technology and innovation play a vital role in the automotive industry. A new car has an estimated 10 to 15 on-board computers, operating the engine, radio, brakes, transmission, steering systems and other components.

The study highlights four technologies as being critically important for the continuous development and growth of South Africa’s automotive sector.

  • The development of lightweight materials.
  • The development of alternate fuels, eg fuel cell technology.
  • Sensors, electronics and telematics.
  • Improved design and manufacturing processes. reporter