Innovation is a product of different factors, principal among which is the knowledge available to the innovating firm which can be internal or external. Consequently, the source, amount and quality of knowledge within a company will determine the company’s outcome concerning innovation and competitiveness.
Knowledge source matters in innovation: Companies translate ideas and inventions into goods and services that have economic value through innovation. For most companies, purchasing some embodied technology (i.e., machinery, equipment or software) is the main source of external knowledge while spending on internal research and development (IRD) is the main source of internal knowledge. A study of Tanzanian firms showed that internal and external knowledge are complementary. In other words, they have greater impact on innovation when combined than when used separately.
Interestingly, firms that develop internal knowledge are better positioned to exploit external technological opportunities. This is because, for a firm to access external knowledge successfully, it needs to have relevant internal knowledge that enables it to utilize such knowledge. This raises the need for firms to consciously invest in IRD and not rely solely on acquisition of external knowledge for innovation. Moreover, acquired external knowledge should complement existing internal capabilities, for optimal benefits.
Global knowledge fosters innovation and patenting: Patents are the exclusive rights that innovators have to exploit their inventions for profit over a period. They (patents) are issued on products and processes that are new, or are significant improvements on existing ones, and can be converted for economic benefits. Since patentable outputs usually emerge from research and development (R&D), and require considerable time and investment, having patents signify the possession of a good measure of new knowledge. While most African firms generally lag behind in their patent turnover, a study on how African companies continue to patent reported that firms that interact (exchange knowledge) with and co-create with partners outside Africa maintain innovativeness than those who do not.
It was observed that firms that manage to innovate at some point are more likely to repeat the innovative process. Similar to the Matthew effect, this perpetuates a gap between companies that constantly innovate and those that do not. In contrast to firms with only African researchers, the inflow of international knowledge (through the presence of at least a researcher or innovator from a developed country) into a company’s innovation process enhances the process, and increases the likelihood that the company would continue to patent over time.
Cross-border patenting activity is an efficient tool for building technological capabilities among developing and African countries. Harnessing this requires strategic policy framework, which include the following, among others. Tax reductions and other fiscal incentives can be used reassure companies involved in international co-patenting. Funding and facilitation mechanisms should be instituted to encourage African firms to participate in global R&D networks and exchanges via technical visits abroad, conference attendance and internships for foreign engineers and researchers in domestic enterprises.