SENEGAL: Push to strengthen research

Senegal's government believes one of its most crucial goals is to create and nurture research initiatives that address challenges particular to the country and Africa, many of which demand technical or scientific solutions.

The Ministry of Education has created a new department of research in recognition of the government's keen interest in the development and application of science and technology.

According to a 2010 African Union report, Senegal already fares far better in research and development than most of 20 African countries surveyed.

The country does have a strong base of researchers and they are well qualified. With 635 researchers per million inhabitants, Senegal is surpassed only by South Africa, which has 825 researchers per million inhabitants. Moreover, Senegal's researchers have strong qualifications when compared to the African average: a full 26% have PhDs.

However, says Amadou Tidiane, Minister of Higher Education, many of Senegal's researchers are ageing and there is an urgent need to train their replacements.

Currently, the Ministry of Education has a fund of CFA500 million (US$1.1 million) to train scientific researchers. This money will promote research in three specific areas identified last year by President Abdoulaye Wade as priorities: renewable energy, seed development and reduction of soil salinity.

The goal is to enlist the universities to find solutions to key problems facing Senegal and to improve the health and well-being of all Senegalese.

Renewable energy

On 26 June 26 this year the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) earmarked more than US$716.7 million for new development projects in its member countries, including $95 million for power production in Senegal. This money is badly needed because Senegal's major cities and towns regularly suffer lengthy and crippling power cuts.

Needing reliable electricity, the Senegalese government has asked universities to build the country's capacity to investigate alternative energy sources like the sun or the scrubby jatropha, a hardy tree-like plant that can be grown on arid, marginal land. Research done to date shows that jatropha seeds can be used to produce a high-quality biodiesel, and the plant can be used as biomass feedstock for power plants.

Seed development

The World Food Programme has identified nearly half of Senegal's families as 'food insecure'. Food scarcity can be traced to decades of drought, farming practices that have failed to protect the environment, and a rapidly growing population.

Senegal urgently needs researchers to find ways to increase food production and improve farming practices. Since the production of high-quality seed is the cornerstone of any country's agriculture, seed biology is an important discipline.

During the last 20 years, international donors have invested more than US$36 million in Senegal to support seed multiplication and distribution projects, as well as the development of new seed varieties.

As a result, four pearl millet and 13 groundnut varieties have been developed and released. In addition, seven seed production and processing centers and nine seed laboratories have been established.

Soil salinity

Climate change is causing the sea level to rise, which is hurting the two-thirds of Senegal's population who live on the coast. The sea is eroding the land and invading the soil, leaving it too saline for normal food production.

In fact, according to the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), soil salinisation (which has many causes) affects nearly all regions of Senegal. The country needs researchers to develop salt-tolerant plants and find ways to combat the detrimental effects of soil salinity on plant growth and yield.

Currently, the IDRC is partnering with Senegal in a project that aims to "increase the capacity of rural communities, community-based organisations, and local and national decision-makers to deal with soil salinisation through collective and individual action."

Partnering with international universities

With the support of USAID, Senegal's universities will collaborate on agricultural projects with a consortium of US universities including Purdue, Virginia Tech, Tuskegee, Michigan State and the University of Connecticut.

And, though open for a very short time, the new university at Bambey is already partnered with Fairfield University in the US state of Connecticut on a community health project.