Dr. Thulani Dlamini

CEO | Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

AfricaLive talks with Dr. Thulani Dlamini, CEO of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa

Key Points

  • The CSIR is a public research organization that undertakes directed, mission-oriented research and technological innovation across key economic sectors to drive socio-economic development in South Africa.
  • Key projects include developing artificial livers for drug testing based on African genotypes, precision agriculture solutions for small-scale farmers, cybersecurity support for businesses, and data analytics for the COVID-19 response.
  • The CSIR ensures local relevance while having a global impact, generating 10% of its R&D income internationally and aiming to grow private sector contribution to 30%.
  • Despite challenges, Dr. Dlamini is optimistic about South Africa’s future, emphasizing the need to harness the country’s strong but underutilized science capabilities to address national priorities.

“We have incredible depth of capability that can be harnessed to address many of the challenges our country faces, whether in energy, water, or health. What is required is for the state to recognize this and proactively tap into this capability to help solve national problems, just like we saw with COVID-19.”

AfricaLive: Dr. Dlamini, could you give an overview of who the CSIR is and how you fit into the South African and African research and innovation ecosystem, particularly how you manage collaborative relationships with other key organizations?

Dr. Thulani Dlamini: The CSIR is a public research organization established about 78 years ago in 1945 by the state. We derive our mandate from what is referred to as the CSIR Act which established our organization. In a nutshell, we are expected to undertake directed research and technological innovation with the intention to foster scientific and industrial development. Everything we do is in partnership with similar organizations, in the public and private sector, geared towards improving the quality of life of the people of South Africa.

It’s important to highlight that we undertake directed research, what other people call mission-oriented research. We are not like a university which undertakes research for academic purposes – our work must be directed towards creating an impact in society, industry and government. With this in mind, we’ve crafted a clear vision to accelerate socio-economic prosperity in South Africa through leading innovation.

Our work spans over 10 sectors of the South African economy – defense and security, manufacturing, agriculture, chemicals and health, ICT, water and environment, waste management, energy, mining, and built environment. These areas were carefully selected based on their potential impact in driving economic growth for the country and the opportunity for innovation to bring about significant performance differences.

AfricaLive: What does innovation mean to you? 

Dr. Thulani Dlamini: For us at the CSIR, innovation goes beyond just the textbook definition of converting an idea into a solution. Innovation for us is ensuring that we create an environment which enables taking those ideas into solutions that make a tangible and visible impact. To drive innovation, you need the right people, research facilities, financial resources, networks, partners, and an enabling operating environment. 

AfricaLive: Could you highlight some key projects underway at the CSIR?

Dr. Thulani Dlamini: Given the breadth of our work it’s difficult to single out just a few, but let me provide some examples:

In health, we are working on vaccine development, cell and gene therapy, and medical devices. One exciting project highly relevant to South Africa and the continent is on drug-induced kidney disease. We spend close to 12 billion rand annually on medical expenses resulting from adverse drug side effects. This is primarily because most medicines used in Africa are developed in the West without considering the unique African genotype during clinical trials. 

Our team of geneticists and biologists are using stem cells to produce artificial livers based on the African genotype. These can be used to test drugs brought into Africa for potential adverse effects before they are approved for use. The impact of this work is huge, not just for South Africa but the whole continent.

In agriculture, beyond bioprocessing, we are looking at precision agriculture. We work with both large and small players to use artificial intelligence, data analytics, and autonomous systems to improve efficiencies and performance of agricultural processes. Making these technologies available to small-scale farmers is a key emphasis as it can open up huge market opportunities while reducing their business risks.

Within the defense and security cluster, we support small and large businesses with cybersecurity solutions and capability development. One current project involves training SMEs on cybersecurity issues and helping guide their solution investment decisions. As the country moves towards digitalization driven by AI and other technologies, cybersecurity becomes a critical issue that all sectors need to be prepared for.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CSIR was at the center of the national response. We provided data analytics to inform critical government decisions and even assisted with genomic sequencing to identify virus strains. The science sector really stepped up to help the country navigate that crisis.

AfricaLive: How do you ensure your research is locally relevant to African needs while meeting global standards?

Dr. Thulani Dlamini: It’s a key part of our identity and business to be locally relevant with a global impact. We’ve organized ourselves to have dedicated capacity for business development, marketing and communications to proactively understand the needs of local industries, society and government. This informs the nature of problems we decide to tackle using our R&D capabilities.

At the same time, the depth of capability we’ve developed allows us to compete internationally. For example, we recently licensed our heavy vehicle simulator to the US Army Corps of Engineers. American companies were bidding for the same tender but we won it. So while local relevance is a key starting point, we absolutely benchmark ourselves against global players.

Currently, we generate about 10% of our contract R&D income (which totals around 2.4 billion rand) from international sources, while 10-15% comes from the South African private sector. The rest is from the public sector. This income profile is an important performance metric for us and shapes the organization’s behavior to stay market-focused. We want to grow the contribution of the private sector, both local and international, to 30%, so there is still work to do.

AfricaLive: Considering both South Africa’s challenges and its research strengths, what is your vision for what can be achieved if the country fully embraces its innovation potential?

Dr. Thulani Dlamini: When COVID-19 hit South Africa, it was the science sector that made it possible to navigate the pandemic. If it wasn’t for past investments in this sector, we would not have been able to respond as effectively as we did. But one thing that happened was that the state had to recognize and come to the science sector for solutions.

A key issue is that the capacity built in the science sector is sometimes not fully appreciated and utilized by the state. We have incredible depth of capability that can be harnessed to address many of the challenges our country faces, whether in energy, water, or health. What is required is for the state to recognize this and proactively tap into this capability to help solve national problems, just like we saw with COVID-19.

South Africa has pockets of excellence in the science sector that are globally competitive. We need to create more awareness so that government and society appreciate the value of this strategic national capability. If we can unlock and apply this underutilized capacity towards our socio-economic challenges, it would be transformative. 

AfricaLive: How confident are you in South Africa’s future?

Dr. Thulani Dlamini: I am very confident. We have strong institutions, including our science councils and universities. We have globally competitive capabilities and the ability to make a real difference in areas that matter for the country’s future. Of course, we must be realistic about the challenging environment and economic headwinds we face. The whole world is unstable and there’s much uncertainty.  

But I’m optimistic about South Africa’s ability to rise above its current problems, as we’ve done in the past. The key is to build stronger alignment and collaboration across the research and innovation ecosystem so that we can effectively mobilize the resources and brainpower needed to address our most pressing challenges. If we do that, and if government sees the immense value of science and technology in enabling its policy objectives, then despite the difficulties, I believe we have a bright future ahead of us.

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