Building a learning sector

Posted on 28/04/2016 by Harold Lockwood

What it takes to build a learning sector: the case of the Appropriate Technology Centre, Uganda

Uganda is often cited as a shining example in sub-Saharan Africa for its development of a coherent policy environment, its nation-wide ‘golden indicators’ for monitoring and its annual joint sector review processes.

Over the last few months I have been leading a team, together with IRC Uganda, to carry out an institutional study of the Appropriate Technology Centre (ATC), which was set up around five years ago to promote applied research into water, sanitation and hygiene technologies

From what I have seen and learned about the ATC and what the Ministry of Water and Environment is trying to achieve, I would add this as further evidence that the sector there is really serious about learning and about building a truly ‘enabling environment’.

The MWE set up the centre essentially under a ‘project’ mechanism with the intention to see it grow into a semi-autonomous entity that could develop and contribute to overall sector knowledge and capacity. In spite of teething problems with the management arrangements, the ATC has indeed provided a proof of concept and, especially in the last couple of years, has started to diversify its funding base and engage with new clients, including dipping its toes into the real world of private sector manufacturing.

We have now finished our study and provided clear recommendations to the MWE, the ATC itself and other key sector stakeholders. Without giving the game away in terms of next steps, I have a number of important lessons from this experience to share – as well as learning a bit about Ugandan law! – including:

1.       A mature and ‘serious’ sector, takes learning seriously: there is a huge demand, both current and untapped, for ATC’s services and products. Supporting this type of capacity to learn and innovate is essential if a sector itself is ever going to stand on its own two feet;

2.       Building capacity takes time, effort and money: getting the ATC to where it is today has taken around five years. As the study team we are proposing a visioning horizon of 20 years plus and a five-year strategic plan. The encouraging thing is the response we got from MWE and others who are committed to this as a long-term proposition and are willing to put public funding behind it to tune of millions of Shillings;

3.       There is (still) no silver bullet of technology: all of the work, outputs and potential impact of the ATC are reliant on and embedded in processes, institutions, markets and regulations. So no surprises from Uganda – indeed as elsewhere – that this axiom remains fully intact.

Even though our study input has ended I will be keeping an eye on future developments with the ATC and wish them and the ministry every success with the new direction and institutional and legal set up of the centre so that it can build on its great work to date.

Harold Lockwood