It's R&D, stupid! The Absorptive Capacities of South African Automotive Component Suppliers

Jochen Lorentzen

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    Innovative firms in developing countries have the odds stacked against them in more than one way. They must contend with the objective difficulties of all sorts of capital shortages and deficient infrastructures. Highly-trained scientists, well-endowed labs, seed funding, and institutions that test and certify prototypes and protect the resulting intellectual property are few and far between in the South. They must also come to terms with global value chains in which for different reasons both multinational corporations and smaller, knowledge-intensive firms typically keep R&D close to home. And finally, they are up against the broad brush of academic thought on industrial development which essentially holds that because of the technology gap between developed and developing countries, innovation proper can only really happen in the North. Thus if innovative firms appear on the radar screen at all, they are likely to register but an errant blip, the exception to the rule, that do not warrant systematic analysis. This paper analyses the absorptive capacities of automotive component suppliers in South Africa. It shows that some firms design and manufacture innovative products, while others upgrade their technological capability or merely strive to attain execution competence. It suggests that the reason for the differential performance lies in the strategic use of advanced technical skills and the kind of learning about frontier technology engendered by R&D. It further discusses the ways in which foreign-owned technology is internalised more or less easily depending on whether or not it is controlled by multinational firms or by passive investors. Section 2 reviews the literature on absorptive capacities in developing countries. Section 3 discusses innovation and the technology frontier in the automotive industry, and Section 4 briefly outlines why this is relevant to firms in South Africa. Section 5 presents data and methodology. Section 6 discusses the findings. Section 7 concludes with suggestions for further research.
    Original languageEnglish
    Place of PublicationKøbenhavn
    Number of pages30
    Publication statusPublished - 2004

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