Science and innovation could cut youth unemployment – Ministers

High levels of youth unemployment across Africa could be reduced if innovation and entrepreneurship were included in university curricula, participants in a major all-Africa conference on science, technology and innovation heard in Kenya this month.

The first Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Youth Unemployment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive Growth took place from 1-3 April in Nairobi.

It was attended by around 60 government ministers – of higher education, science and technology, education, and finance – from across the continent, as well as academics and civil society representatives, and was sponsored by UNESCO and the African Development Bank.

The message was that science, technology and innovation (STI) could be used to advance youth development in Africa.

Dzingai Mutumbuka, chair of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and a former Zimbabwean higher education minister, said that 40% of Africa’s working population was made up of youth, but 60% of these young people were unemployed, under-employed or unemployable.

“This state of affairs is partly attributable to the horrendous mismatch between our education and training systems and the world of work,” he said.

Aida Opoku-Mensah, director of the ICT, science and technology division at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, said African education systems, formal and informal alike, must embrace a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Universities and technical colleges should be encouraged to offer entrepreneurship and innovation courses, or work closely with the private sector to tackle this problem.

Opoku-Mensah called for policies to enable tertiary institutions to create research teams that would operate as small companies, encourage enterprising individuals to work closely with industry and government, and support or reward entrepreneurship.

“We are delighted that here in Kenya, a number of universities have established incubators and science parks on their campuses to provide space for enterprising students and researchers to take their products to market.”

She urged investment to come from African countries’ national budgets, and not just from donors.

“The people who give us aid did not develop like that and we cannot develop with all the aid in the world. We need visionary leaders who have a clear sense of dignity, integrity and sovereignty for our development,” Opoku-Mensah told the forum.

She added that with each donor ‘gift’, with each event organised for Africa, comes the labour, materials and innovation of those who bear the gift. "What happens to African labour, materials and innovation?" she asked.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki told the meeting that Africa was experiencing rapid economic growth but to compete effectively in the global market it must be able to develop technologies that would set off Africa's industrial revolution.

He called on academic and research institutions and the private sector to put policies and infrastructure in place that would attract and retain top scientists. “Much more needs to be done to ensure Africa becomes a global hub for innovations,” he said.

Kenya's Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Margaret Kamar said the ability of African countries to achieve rapid and inclusive development and the capacity to compete in fast-globalising, knowledge-based economies would depend on their ability to innovate creatively.

Kamar was concerned that in the past Africa had failed to move beyond declarations made at forums. “Africa is full of declarations; we must now move to action,” she said.

ADEA chair Mutumbuka echoed the same sentiments, saying that in the past decade there had been at least five ministerial conferences on science, technology and innovation. “It is time that we Africans moved away from lofty conference resolutions to implementation, implementation, implementation.”

Donald Kaberuka, head of the African Development Bank, said science and innovation would create not only sustainable but also equitable wealth for Africans. “Created wealth has the potential to accelerate development and reduce inequality, as opposed to inherited wealth, which fuels inequalities and at times sparks conflict in Africa.”

Kaberuka called on universities to use e-learning approaches to alleviate the continent-wide problem of lecturer shortages for ever-higher numbers of students.

UNESCO Director-general Irina Bokova said her organisation was already involved with more than 20 African countries in reviewing existing STI policies in order to develop national frameworks.

UNESCO is also actively promoting links between science, technology, innovation and industry through its University-Industry Science Partnership Programme, on the governance of science and technology parks in developing countries.

The ministers resolved that all African countries should honour the forum’s Nairobi Ministerial Declaration, which called for setting up national STI policies by 2015 and announced a range of resolutions to promote and strengthen STI.

They also agreed to the full establishment and management of the Pan African University, the African Observatory for Science, Technology and Innovation and African Union research grants, and to support and integrate STI policies, strategies and programmes in national and continental agendas.