Africa’s future lies in the hands of its scientists. From urbanisation to agriculture, climate change to pandemics, Africa needs science, technology and innovation (STI) to secure a prosperous and sustainable future. The continent must urgently reverse the brain drain of its talented researchers and ramp up its education and expertise, so that Africa’s problems can be solved by Africa’s people.

At the World Economic Forum this week, we will present a new vision for supporting STI in Africa, led by the President of Mauritius, H.E. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim. This is the Coalition for Research and Innovation (CARI), an alliance of African science leaders and international funders who have joined forces to catalyse investment in research and innovation.

Through CARI, we want to transform the leadership, governance and funding of African research, so that the leaders of African nations take ownership and set research agendas, and African researchers work equitably with global partners.

The need for science-led development

Investment in science and R&D can raise economic productivity by boosting innovation and creating new start-ups, SMEs and jobs. A workforce with strong STI skills provides a base for better policy-making, for attracting high-value manufacturing, and for protecting our planet.

And, in this time of profound economic, demographic and epidemiological transition, science is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Science can help to reduce disease and poverty, and can generate knowledge and translate it into products and services to benefit citizens.

Crucial to this will be greater investment to make a greater impact on the nexus of health, food, water and climate change, and to produce a cadre of leaders with the interdisciplinary skills needed to meet these challenges.

This means that Africa must keep hold of its expertise. African scientists and other professionals would be happy to return to or stay in their home countries, if the continent invests to create ecosystems in which they can thrive.

Africa has fewer than 100 scientists per million inhabitants, and will need to increase this to the global average of 800 by training millions of scientists, technicians and engineers to post-graduate levels over the next few years. This will require billions of dollars, but it will be immensely rewarding in meeting the SDGs.

African leaders increasingly champion science

Fortunately, the tide is turning:

  • Countries like South Africa, Nigeria Egypt, and Tunisia have been providing leadership based on scientific outputs.
  • Other countries like Kenya are dedicating increased funds for science and innovation.
  • Mauritius has used STI to position herself as an international financial hub and a global hot spot for biodiversity.
  • Algeria has been implementing a strategy to improve science, and its number of scientific publications has grown from 12,000 in 2008 to 45,000 in 2015.
  • The African Union’s implementation of the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 demonstrates governments’ support for science.
  • The AU has created a Presidential Committee on Science and Technology, of which President Gurib-Fakim is a member.

This increasing commitment can be leveraged to create endowments, cost-sharing schemes with national governments, and public-private partnerships.

A drone on a launch pad in Muhanga, south of Rwanda's capital Kigali
Image: REUTERS/James Akena

Supporting African science in a less fragmented way

Agenda 2063 calls for “African resources to finance its development”, and for a partnership of governments, businesses and philanthropists to “establish an African STI Fund”. With African countries still spending a measly 1.3% of the total global spend on R&D, such a dedicated fund for STI across Africa will be crucial.

A dedicated fund for African scientists would also promote collaboration across borders – essential in a continent where countries share similar challenges but rarely work on these together, such as disease outbreaks. This was a painful lesson of the Ebola crisis, which could have been ameliorated or even avoided had African scientists been supported to work more collaboratively.

Efforts to create a common fund will not begin from scratch. Many global funders already make significant direct investments in cross-African institutions. One example is the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), created by the African Academy of Sciences and NEPAD Agency with support from global partners such as Wellcome, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID. AESA is a transparent vehicle to manage research funding and provide research leadership for the continent. It currently manages more than $150M of science programmes across the continent.

Through CARI, global funders, private corporations and philanthropists can coalesce to better coordinate spending and support regional science initiatives like AESA, Planet Earth Institute and others.

Africa’s destiny is in the hands of its scientists, but they must have more resources and support to succeed. We will identify opportunities and build a road-map and business plan to make the case for investment, ready for launch in 2018.