Education and Skills

How Africa can rebuild its scientific talent and return to the pinnacle of innovation

A Masaai herdsman looks after his cattle near the power-generating wind turbines at the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) station in Ngong hills, 22 km (13.7 miles) southwest of Kenya's capital Nairobi, July 17, 2009. Kenya plans to add 2,000 megawatts of more environmentally-friendly energy by 2013 by investing $7-$8 billion, a KenGen official said on Friday. KenGen is setting up some wind turbines and a private company is planning a 300 MW wind farm in Kenya's northeastern region by 2012. To match INTERVIEW KENYA-ENERGY/ REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya (KENYA ENVIRONMENT ENERGY BUSINESS) - GM1E57I00P501

A herdsman looks after his cattle near the Kenya Electricity Generating Company's wind turbines. Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Daniel Mundeva
associate program manager for education and learning, Mastercard Foundation.
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Ten years ago, a top South African physicist called on Africa’s educators to nurture scientific achievement by improving the capabilities of the continent’s youngest researchers. But despite significant improvements, much more work is needed to return Africa to the pinnacle of innovation that it once occupied.

Ten years ago, South African physicist Neil Turok made a bold prediction: the world’s next Einstein will be from Africa. A decade later, it is worth considering whether the continent is any closer to finding the next global genius.

Statistically, there is indeed a high probability that it will happen. By 2050, 40% of the world’s young people will be African. By virtue of demographics alone, it stands to reason that Africa is destined to generate prodigies in science or technology.

Image: United Nations

Africans have led the world in science before. In fact, some of humanity’s greatest innovations – from vaccines to brain surgery– were pioneered by Africans. One of the oldest measuring devices ever used, the Lebombo Bone, was carved by people believed to have lived some 35,000 years ago in modern-day eSwatini (Swaziland). In other words, mathematics itself is an African invention.1

For decades, science and policy luminaries like Calestous Juma, a global advocate for science-driven sustainable development, and Wangari Maathai, an environmental activist and Nobel laureate, championed Africa’s science agenda. With these visionaries now gone, Africa needs a new brain trust to inspire future generations of ethical and public-spirited researchers.

But how do we ensure Africa discovers, supports, and develops innovative, game-changing scientists? The missing element has been an African education system that supports innovation in research, and that provides the next African revolutionary scientist with the training and support he or she needs – in Africa.

Across the continent, there is a growing consensus among governments that education and research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is critical for economic growth and development. At the moment, however, too many of Africa’s young researchers see no option but to go abroad for school and work. That can change, but only with concrete investments in homegrown talent. This means rethinking the entire education system in Africa. Three priorities stand out.

First, African countries need to fix the knowledge pipeline. That means investing in teacher training, improved learning outcomes, retention of girls in STEM courses, supporting research earlier in university, helping young researchers through so-called sandwich programs, establishing university-private sector labs on campus, and more.

Second, Africa needs indigenous knowledge creation. This requires facilitating both fundamental and applied research and creating the necessary infrastructure for the dissemination of research outcomes. This could include making more funding available to researchers and research institutions, as well as promoting open sources for knowledge sharing.

The third priority is putting knowledge into practice. This could involve making scientific information accessible to the general public and innovators, and supporting public-private partnerships to pilot, demonstrate, and apply research outcomes, thereby creating jobs addressing public problems.

A good example is Zipline, which deploys drone technology to deliver blood transfusions to remote areas of Rwanda. To deploy this technology, which is based on American research but piloted in-country, Zipline signed agreements with the aviation authority and the ministry of health, among others, and a public-private partnership was set up to fund the program. After successfully deploying the technology in Rwanda, it is currently being rolled out in Ghana. Zipline has saved hundreds of lives and demonstrated the potential of technology transfer with large-scale impact.

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The Next Einstein Forum (NEF), an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) and the brainchild of Turok, supported partly by the Mastercard Foundation, is demonstrating that Africa produces strong scientific talent. The NEF focuses on convening Africa’s innovators to highlight breakthrough discoveries and catalyze scientific collaboration for human development. Since the first cohort of NEF Fellows was selected in 2015, the program has highlighted the contributions of young African researchers who are working to tackle some of the world’s toughest scientific and technological challenges.

NEF’s current cohort includes Somalia’s Abdigani Diriye, who created a blockchain-enabled lending platform in Kenya and was recently named one of Africa’s top 30 innovators; Nigeria’s Peter Ngene, whose work on nanotechnologies is being used to improve renewable energy and who also recently created a hydrogen-based eye sensor that detects lactose intolerance; and Vinet Coetzee of South Africa, whose research in non-invasive measures of health has led to a patent application for a device that could detect malaria.

With so many complex issues vying for attention today, Africa will need innovative education and research models. But as long as the NEF and similar efforts continue to nurture the continent’s brightest young scientists and tackle systemic issues like funding, mobility, and research infrastructure, the odds are good that those leading the search for solutions will be the very people Turok predicted.

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