Africa Analysis: Seize the moment on climate tech
Africa must make sure its grassroots innovations can benefit from a new global green technology support mechanism, argues Linda Nordling.
When exhausted environment ministers pushed through an agreement after extended negotiations at the Durban climate summit last month (December), it kicked off another process that deserves Africa's full attention.
This month, the UN will issue a call for offers to host the Climate Technology Centre (CTC). The centre will manage a global network of experts whose chief task will be to help developing countries identify, access and adapt climate-friendly technologies that will put them on a green development path.
The creation of the centre and its network during the course of 2012 will implement and complete the UN's long-awaited technology mechanism. For Africa, it means that the time is ripe for governments, companies, innovators and other stakeholders to make sure the mechanism will look after the continent's interests.
More to thrash out
The idea of providing technology support for developing countries to pursue clean development paths has been part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since its inception in the early 1990s.
But it was not until the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010 that the mechanism started to take shape. The summit established a Technology Executive Committee (TEC) — made up of 20 members, 11 representing developing countries — to provide an overview of technological needs.
But questions remain about how the centre and network will work in practice. What technologies will be shared, and how? And what about the role of intellectual property rights? The TEC's next meeting is due next month (February) and African governments need to be involved in these discussions to ensure the mechanism will benefit the continent.
One of the first questions is where the CTC will be located. The UNFCCC secretariat will evaluate applications to host the centre according to criteria agreed in Durban last month.
The list of demands is long, asking for depth and breadth of expertise in technology transfer as well as demonstrated capability in promoting the kind of multi-stakeholder cooperation that will be essential to building and maintaining the network.
Insiders say that the centre will probably be hosted by a large multilateral agency such as the UN Development Programme headquartered in New York, United States. But it could also end up in a developing country, where it might be better positioned to meet developing country needs. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, based in Bangkok, Thailand, is one such possibility.
The critical issues for African countries, however, will come once the network and its operations start to take shape.
Not a marketing platform
Commentators fear that the technology mechanism could turn into a marketing platform for technologies produced in rich countries. Many developed countries, and some emerging economies, are said to be eyeing the mechanism as a storefront for their pet technologies.
But most developing country observers want the technology mechanism to be more inclusive, encouraging the sharing of grassroots experiences and innovation between developing countries, as well as technology expertise passing from rich to poor countries.
There is a solid potential for grassroots innovation in Africa, using tried-and-tested tools or by producing new technology suitable for use in a rural African context. The story of William Kamkwamba, the young Malawian who built a windmill from scraps to generate power in his home, shows what is possible. 
It is important that technologies like solar cooking stoves and simple irrigation techniques have a place in the technology mechanism, says Ahmed Latif, senior programme manager on innovation, technology and intellectual property at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Don't miss out
However, while the type of technologies being shared is important, the technology mechanism won't serve poor countries well unless they also have the capacity to absorb them.
Most poor African countries lack basic infrastructure, financial resources and strong institutions — a key reason why the continent has so far failed to access international support mechanisms. For example, it has claimed less than two per cent of the projects under the UN's Clean Development Mechanism, an existing climate support programme.
African countries cannot wait for the benefits of the technology mechanisms to come to them. They must actively engage with the process and get their houses in order to benefit from the opportunities the mechanism will offer.
Kenya, one of Africa's representatives on the TEC, has set an excellent example with the launch of a national Climate Innovation Centre early this year. The centre aims to help domestic actors identify, develop, transfer and deploy innovative technologies to address local climate change challenges.
Unless other countries follow suit, the UN technology mechanism risks becoming another missed opportunity for Africa.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.