The African Union’s Agenda 2063 sets out a bold ambition to transform the continent’s socio-economic fortunes. It outlines a vision of a prosperous Africa, based on inclusive growth and sustainable development, and cites investment in education, skills development and science as three central pillars to achieving this goal.
There is a strong desire for investment in African science, but it is a vision that is far from being realized. African R&D and innovation suffers from chronic underinvestment and poor implementation. The continent is home to 15% of the world’s population and 25% of the global burden of disease, but it produces just 2% of the world’s research output.
Only 1% of global investment in R&D is spent in Africa, and the continent holds a tiny 0.1% of the world’s patents. Of the medical research that does occur, much of it fails to prioritize diseases or health problems that are most pressing for Africans. Put simply, there are not enough scientists in Africa.
Africa currently has 198 researchers per million people, compared with 428 in Chile and over 4,000 in the UK and US. To achieve just the world average for the number of researchers per capita, the continent needs another million new PhDs.
The situation is getting worse. Lack of opportunity sees Africa lose some 20,000 professionals to high-income countries every year. To do nothing is to go backwards.
The conversation about African R&D so often gets stuck on these seemingly insurmountable challenges. But, like many regions globally, the African continent is undergoing dramatic social and economic changes that present some exciting opportunities.
In the five years to 2015, when many nations were still reeling from the global economic crisis, Africa’s GDP grew at 3.3% a year – faster than the world average. Furthermore, the IMF predicts that the continent will be the world’s second-fastest growing economy by 2020. Demographics are shifting, with greater urbanization and an emerging middle class. Africa is expected to have the largest working-age population in the world by 2034.
There is a real opportunity to invest in this group to create an exciting and sustainable future; one that provides good careers, economic security, and that contributes positively to Africa’s social and economic development.
The time to act is now. If Africa is to realize its goal of shared prosperity within the next generation, it must improve its R&D and innovation landscape by investing in people.
Some progress is already being made. The Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS) Africa programme has already invested £60 million in training African researchers. Funding comes from Wellcome and the UK government, but the programme is led not from London, but in Nairobi, by the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA). By shifting the centre of gravity in this way, DELTAS is beginning to ensure that science for Africa is led by Africa's researchers, and that it remains relevant to the needs of the continent.
It’s a great start, but more needs to be done. In order to be sustainable in the long term, funding needs to come not just from foreign investors, but from the continent itself. Numerous initiatives are being developed to encourage just that. The latest, and one that will be discussed in detail this week at the World Economic Forum on Africa, is the Coalition for African Research and Innovation (CARI). CARI aims to build a highly coordinated, well-funded, innovative R&D community inside Africa to overcome the continent’s perennial lack and fragmentation of resources.
It is difficult to overstate the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. Increasing research capacity is a long and complex process, requiring continuous input at the individual, institutional and system-wide levels. Support for each of these is necessary, but underpinning them all is people – in this case a highly-skilled, internationally competitive, scientific workforce.
Increasing the number of scientists in Africa is of course not the end – it is the means. Everything in the R&D and innovation landscape is reliant on those that work within it. Greater expertise means a healthier research landscape, which will speed up the transfer of new knowledge to policy makers, the release of usable products, and ultimately the improvement of health and development across the continent. A skilled workforce also attracts private-sector investment, something notably lacking in Africa.
Innovation-driven economies owe their success to strong political leadership in science, technology and innovation. An example of this being implemented successfully is Kenya, which has placed science and innovation firmly at the heart of its road-map to becoming a middle-income country by 2030.
By developing a comprehensive policy strategy and establishing a Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Kenya has climbed from 99th to 85th in the Global Innovation Index and is close to reaching its goal of 1% GDP expenditure on R&D. It has ambitions to reach 2% eventually.
It is exactly this type of vision and leadership that we need to see replicated across the continent. Of course it will take time. The competing financial demands that any government has to juggle are particularly acute across sub-Saharan Africa. But to ignore investment in R&D is to ignore investment in Africa’s future.