Pushing partnerships to advance science, technology and innovation in Africa

Students taking a master’s degree in forestry at the University of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Africa needs a strong university system that is closely linked to science and technology needs. Photo by: Ollivier Girard / Center for International Forestry Research / CC BY-NC-ND

Strengthening science, technology and innovation is a very obvious way to address development challenges in Africa — yet universities remain strapped for cash.

Take the case of South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy.

Grace Naledi Mandisa Pandor, minister of science and technology, lamented how recent statistics show that funding for higher education is declining, despite her country’s need to build and maintain a skilled workforce and create a fertile environment to grow ideas and meet critical human needs.

“Without [this] we are losing human capital that would contribute to innovation,” she said on Tuesday during the Symposium on Science, Technology and Innovation for Economic Growth in Africa hosted by The National Academies in Washington, D.C., one of several side events organized around this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

Pandor called for a strong university system with a vibrant and active higher education sector that is closely linked to science and tech needs.

But how can this be achieved? For one, she told Devex, the South African government is attaching scholarships to every education program they initiate. The challenge, then, is making sure the institutions are present for educated scientists to continue to work in their home countries.

“What we need to do is address institution building in order to absorb these graduates into science institutions on the continent,” she said. “How do we expand the institutional base so the many young people we produce can continue working in science?”

It’s a challenge that can be met, in part, by either capitalizing on current or forming new partnerships — whether domestic or international.

Successful partnerships

Wole Soboyejo, president of Africa University of Science and Technology, science, technology and innovation is already the engine of sustainable development in Europe, the Americas and Asia, so why not Africa?

U.S. and Africa university partnerships can be particularly helpful to meet this goal, and Soboyejo gave the example of the U.S.-Africa Materials Institute, based at Princeton University, Soboyejo said.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, this program was established as a virtual institute that focuses on materials research and education in areas that can stimulate human capacity development and economic development in Africa. Talented physicists, mathematicians, chemists, biologists, engineers and more — collaborating between the U.S. and Africa — developed a range of innovations, including solar energy to provide vaccine refrigeration for medical clinics in rural communities in Kenya and a ceramic water filter factory in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Up to 99 of 100 fellows selected from Africa to work in conjunction with the program at Princeton returned to successful careers on the continent.

Another successful partnership has been the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, Nigeria, the first of the Nelson Mandela Institutions.

Nelson Sewankambo, president of the Uganda National Academy of Sciences, explained how the role of science academies in supporting science, technology and innovation also serves to advance good governance. Since policy advisory space in Africa remains uncrowded, academies have an opportunity to fill that space with advice based on scientific evidence.

Sewankambo said he would like to see an increase in value and demand for science with a purpose: development and improvement of people’s lives, which panelist Calestous Juna linked back to education and capitalizing on in-country training that already exists.

According to this internationally recognized authority in the application of science and technology to sustainable development worldwide, most African ministries that deal with technical issues such as telecommunications, transportation or railways, have small trainings that have potential to be upgraded to larger workshops and even graduate programs, he said. This has been done on a large scale in China and in South Korea, but more African countries should realize it could become a foundation for expanding higher education. In addition, private companies such as IBM or General Electric often have in-house training initiatives in African countries that could be better harnessed.

“These are not new ideas ... it hasn't been done in Africa because the focus has been around classical models, there has been resistance to anything beyond classical models,” Juna said.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.