Research institutions that have for a long time played second fiddle to others are coming out of the shadows to claim their rightful position and take centre stage to transform Botswana from overreliance on resources (predominantly minerals) to a knowledge-based economy.
Established by the Botswana Government in 1979, Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI), formerly known as Botswana Technology Centre (BOTEC) – a leading Research and Technology Organisation (RTO) – is one such strategic institution.
Chief Executive Officer Professor Shedden Masupe, in the company of BITRI senior management team, recently presented projects they are currently undertaking to the media. He said the biggest hindrance to expansion and intensify research into new areas is lack of funding, after the P60 million they were allocated by government for the 2018/19 financial year proved to be far too short of their budget. Notwithstanding the miniscule allocation, Prof Masupe reiterated that they have made a commitment that "as we impact lives of Batswana, we have to ease off dependence on the Shareholder (government)".
To achieve self-sufficiency, Prof Masupe is alive to the fact that BITRI has to attain some autonomy, and to this end the institution has proposed transformation into a fully-fledged state-owned entity (company) by 2021. As a private entity BITRI will develop concepts into prototypes, which can be sold to industries or assign an identified partner to manufacture complete fully licensed products. The spinoffs from such relationships will be technology transfer. Other benefits are that BITRI will have capacity to exploit and intensify contract research, which they are currently doing on a small scale e.g. with Botswana Geo Science Institute (BGI).
"We will be able to generate our own revenue to support our projects and also mentor other independent researchers to develop their own concepts into complete products. P60 million was never going to be sufficient to fund all projects in our wish list as research & development evolves all the time," said Prof Masupe.
Although some concepts are still at development stage, BITRI is currently piloting numerous projects around the country in different sectors of the economy. For example, one of them is the school management system for tutoring students and design of timetables which is being tested at Bakgatla CJSS in Mochudi with the view to rollout countrywide. At Scottish Livingstone Hospital in Molepolole, BITRI is trying out a system for management of non-communicable diseases.
Other BITRI priority research areas are in Natural Resources and Materials, where they have developed Building Materials like the Kgalagadi Sand Building Block (KSBB) to reduce over reliance on river sand which causes land degradation. On the other hand, the local development of clinker will reduce imports from South Africa for the production of local cement.
To address climate change challenges, BITRI is up-scaling Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) in Masunga and Borolong farms. Research is also on-going with regards to nano materials focussing on Air Filtration, Water Filtration, CMS, and FMD.
In terms of technologies, in the Electronics & Communications sector BITRI has developed Seding V2.5. In the energy sector they have on-going research projects in Biomass, the use of Solar energy– STTF on traffic lights to reduce the burden on the national grid. They have also done research on IST – SMS, Motlhokomedi, SignCoach, FMS, Nthusa Distress Call, and developed computer versions of traditional games like Morabaraba and Mhele.
BITRI operates under the mantra "Technology Solutions from you to us for you". It is mandated to conduct needs-based research and development in focused areas of national interest and to deliver high standard technology solutions that maximise the beneficiation of local resources, through both institutional and collaborative programmes. Their area of speciality is to conduct needs-based technology research that provides sustainable innovative solutions through co-creation and collaboration. Prof Masupe said they have a close working relationship with other research institutions locally and internationally among them the University of Botswana (UB), Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST), and Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BUAN). Established on the outskirts of Gaborone in Sebele, in 1967, as the Botswana Agricultural College (BAC), BUAN aims to produce quality graduates for the agricultural sector through innovative teaching and research. To buttress the point, Prof Masupe revealed that, in fact, some of the projects done by PHD students at UB's faculty of engineering and technology (FET) are supervised by BITRI researchers.