Perhaps no country can arguably be said to be the perfect example of how a supposed developing or Third World country has seized its destiny in its hands and confounded all the naysayers in the area of technological development and advancement than Brazil. Brazil has shown in a few short years, that it is not only known for football prowess, but can bulldoze its way into the technological realm. Its advances in healthcare, especially in generic production of anti-retrovirals as well as a systematic approach to tackling its HIV problem with resounding success, are well known. Its advancement in production and use of biodiesel, which attracted the attention of former US President George W. Bush enough to visit the country, is also well documented. Today in the world of finance, Brazil gets mention as one of the BRICS countries. How did Brazil get to where it is technologically, and what can African countries learn from this experience?
Brazil did not get to where it did overnight. It suffered from the same difficult starts that many African countries did in the area of technology. The management of the Brazilian technological industry is similar to what obtains in many African countries. There is a central body (the ministry of Science and Technology) and several development agencies, as well as a replication of this federal structure at the state level. Brazil’s Ministry of Science and Technology which was setup in 1985 along with several associated parastatals (government-owned corporations), suffered greatly as political interests were the overriding factor in determining the science and technology policy direction of the Brazilian government at the time.
Today, Brazil has to a large extent, transcended these issues. Basic research for science and technology has traditionally been done at the numerous universities (public and private) and research institutes scattered across the country. This is in variance with what obtains in developed countries where private organizations and foundations are at the forefront of research and development. This trend is now changing as tax incentives and lower labour costs have allowed foreign companies to setup shop in Brazil.
Protectionist policies that were pursued from the 80s, which compelled government agencies and businesses to use Brazilian-made products while at the same time, placing import prohibitions on certain items, helped the technology industry to grow. Significant funding and a political will to develop Brazilian-made technology for Brazilians pushed advances in technology. One instance of this is the creation of a Brazilian-customized Linux operating system for computers.
It must be said however, that it has not always been a one-way success story for Brazil. Brazil is a heterogeneous society, and the technological needs of its various regions are varied. There have been issues in articulating an appropriate technology policy that addresses these various needs. Also, the fact that the technological advances have not necessarily been translated to an improved quality of life in many communities is one major criticism of the technology policy of Brazil.
What can Africa learn from the Brazilian experience?
One major point is that in African societies which are traditionally heterogeneous, with several tribes, cultures and ethnic nationalities in countries, there is a need to develop technology policies that are tailored to the needs of each region. There is no such thing as a one-key-fits-all approach to technological development in any African country.
Secondly, Brazil saw the need to develop indigenous technology for its own use. For example, in African countries that have power supply problems, there is a need to look at what is available locally to generate power. African countries around the equator have started to look at solar power as an energy source, but still rely on equipment from advanced countries to harness this power source, making it expensive and of very little use to the local populace and local businesses. The use of local materials in tapping resources should be pursued a lot more aggressively.
Brazil has made many technological advances as well as mistakes in its technological march, and African countries can learn from both to become the 21st century technological powerhouses.