Imagine spilling coffee on your shirt just a few minutes before driving to work and have it disappear without using any detergent.
What about medicine that through pouring it on your skin can penetrate and go on to attack the lump in your stomach and clears you of cancer or fibroids?
This sounds too futuristic. Not until after a chat with Minister of Science and Technology (S&T) Heneri Dzinotyiwei. Dzinotyiwei makes this look possible today.
He calls it nanotechnology, a term he uses over and over again during the interview.
“With nanotechnology we are saying things can be done at a micro level. This means with this technology we can be able to detect a disease before it happens. We can have textile that can wash itself and this is reality because we recently had a workshop on nanotechnology and we had experts demonstrating this to us,” Dzinotyiwei said.
It is with this realisation that Zimbabwe has adopted a National Nanotechnology Programme to guide industry in the country to take advantage of the new discoveries.
“Together with the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences and Zimbabwe Research Council we are tuned up to what is happening around the science world and we want it to benefit the industry.”
But what is nanotechnology?
There is no simpler explanation to it than that it involves microscopic nanoparticles that could have a major impact on your health and the products you will buy, both good and bad, in the years ahead.
About two million tonnes of the tiny particles, as small as, 1-100 000th the width of a human hair, are used annually in a wide-ranging list of consumer and other products, from cosmetics to socks to toothpaste.
And the nanotechnology field is expanding rapidly.
To confirm Dzinotyiwei’s assertions, the National Cancer Institute in the US explains: “Nanoparticles can be used to carry antibodies, drugs or other substances to parts of the body.”
Dzinotyiwei adds: “We have research that shows that we can enhance even agriculture because contaminants in soil and groundwater can be removed by iron nanoparticles.”
Within all this promise within the science and technology industry, the minister is disappointed by the lack of seriousness from government leadership.
“In Zimbabwe we used to do a lot in terms of science and technology until 2000. Now Zimbabwe’s biggest challenge is to accept the thesis that we need to invest in S&T to improve the economy. I am afraid and disappointed that government has not grasped that yet. They do not realise that we can contribute at least 1% of GDP within a short time through this ministry,” Dzinotyiwei said.
Rapid economic development in Brazil, China, India and other developing countries has confirmed that S&T plays a vital role in advancing economic and social well-being, says Dzinotyiweyi.
Yet, he acknowledges that promoting such policies in poor countries remains difficult.
“How can governments in poor countries invest in S&T when the spectre of hunger and poverty looms so large in the daily lives of their people?” Dzinotyiwei recently told TWAS newsletter.
He added that government was not funding research project, a situation that had seen the country lagging behind.
“Although the situation at universities is better there is no funding on other fronts. There is no way as a nation we can have intelligent researchers without funding. I however am optimistic that in three years, with a frame of political stability, we as Zimbabwe will be far ahead given our human resources because we recognise as a country that education is important.”
The minister said despite the lack of funding they have come up with a Department of Commercialisation of Research and Development that works on commercialising science discoveries.
“One of our success stories has been that we have developed antibiotics that help in killing ticks instead of the costly dipping of cattle that needs costly infrastructure and a lot of labour.
What then we wait and suggest is that industry can engage us and we get our share of developing the product. That is what I call commercialisation of S&T.
“We have reached a stage in global development when even the poorest countries can readily derive material benefits from investments in science and technology,” he said.
As a parting word, he said the future despite a disregard for the short-term and long-term benefits was bright.
We have begun rather slowly to realise that commercialisation of scientific findings so that knowledge is turned into goods and services can benefit society.
The promise of S & T, Dzinotyiweyi asserts, has never been brighter.
“The key to grasping the opportunities afforded by these developments lies in efforts to successfully commercialise scientific knowledge.”
In the meantime, the nanotechnology field continues to expand.