UNESCO-HP initiative supports Africa, Arab brain gain

A project backed by UNESCO and Hewlett-Packard, aimed at reversing the brain drain from African and Arab countries, believes it has contributed significantly to strengthening teaching and research in selected universities. The Brain Gain Initiative turned 10 years old this year.

A partnership between UNESCO and California-based Hewlett-Packard, or HP, the project uses grid and cloud computing technology to empower lecturers and students who have stayed in their home countries, to engage in real-time scientific collaboration and research with those who have left.

The main aim of the project is to advance science and technology in Africa and the Arab world, according to Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, former chief of higher education at the UN agency, current head of the reform, innovation and quality assurance section and an international higher education expert.

“Through the project we have established that talented African and Arab expatriates abroad can still play a meaningful role in their countries’ development agenda,” Uvalic-Trumbic told University World News in an interview.

She noted that the UNESCO-HP partnership, which began in 2003, had expanded the Brain Gain Initiative to cover 19 universities in the Middle East and Africa.

The universities participating in the project are in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Academics in these countries have been using grid and cloud computing technologies to link up with counterparts in the diaspora to implement joint research.

How the initiative works

Explaining how the process works, Chief Project Scientist Martin Antony Walker defined a grid as a collection of computers and storage, linked via the internet through software that virtually coordinates access to and use of information.

For instance, the University of Nigeria at Nsukka has installed a grid node that has facilitated close work between Dr Oluwaseun Amoo, an expert on micro-propagation of tissue culture at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and researchers in Nigeria in the department of plant science and biotechnology, to conduct studies on improved propagation of cocoyam.

During a recent evaluation of the Brain Gain Initiative, Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar was found to have made progress in e-science through a grid node that enabled the Senegalese university to establish collaboration with the Grid Computing Institute of the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

The link enables academics and researchers to further their careers from Senegal. “Our students and faculty can now do their research locally and collaborate with scientists all over the world,” said Ibrahima Niang, head of the computer centre at Cheikh Anta Diop University and coordinator of the Brain Gain Initiative in Senegal.

In Cameroon, a Brain Gain Initiative project is using remote electronic sensors for real-time measurement of urban air pollution in the capital Yaounde.

Project coordinator Professor Emmanuel Tonye has designed a website that maps air pollution in the city, while Christophe Bobda, a Cameroonian professor of engineering at the University of Arkansas in America, has developed devices to measure air quality.

According to the review report, the two engineers hope to pioneer a system that will fight air pollution in other African cities. “Our ultimate goal is to create a transfer of technology in Africa,” said Bobda.

At the University of Nairobi, in Kenya, the school of computing is using a grant from the Brain Gain Initiative to establish a regional centre of excellence for distributed systems and modelling for applications in medicine and biological sciences.

According to Dr William Okelo-Odongo, coordinator of the project, the grid will soon be opened up and accessed by other researchers and students in the region. “Currently, the project is supporting six Kenyan universities but we intend to expand our research agenda to include other universities in East Africa,” said Okelo-Odongo.

Amid efforts to encourage South-South collaboration, the college of women at Kuwait University has taken the lead by using its Brain Gain Initiative grid to link up with researchers in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria.

“We have also linked up with colleagues in the diaspora in India, Australia, the United States and Europe,” said Paul Manuel, coordinator of the project in Kuwait.

A wider role

Apart from connecting researchers, the Brain Gain Initiative is fast developing into a lifeline for building talent in developing countries.

According to Uvalic-Trumbic, participating universities are designing their own projects that draw on their potential to become digital hubs of global knowledge.

“Some of those projects have led to the creation of new educational content and courses in addition to mobilisation of researchers at home and abroad towards undertaking promising e-science initiatives,” she said.

As in the case of the University of Nairobi, which has plans to expand its reach in East Africa, other African universities that already host Brain Gain Initiative projects are very keen to provide training and capacity to other institutions.

For instance Gaston Berger University in Senegal plans to contribute towards establishing a national grid and cloud computing infrastructure to cover all universities in the country.

“Mekelle University, the first university in Ethiopia to develop a grid node through the Brain Gain Initiative, has also expressed wishes to expand the facility to include other universities in the country,” said Uvalic-Trumbic.

The success of the UNESCO-HP initiative is embedded in the need to reduce the migration of African academics to work in Europe, Australia or the United States.

“The capacity to integrate computer resources, databases and scientific instruments from multiple locations to form a virtual environment in which users can work together has produced good results,” said Uvalic-Trumbic.

The project has also altered the equation in which brain gain was simply regarded as the opposite of brain drain.

According to the evaluation report, the UNESCO-HP partnership is in the process of creating an alternative paradigm in which location will no longer matter, provided that human capital can be improved through transfer of expertise and skills.

The reality is that tens of thousands of African scientists now live and work in developed countries and most of them will never return. “It is vital to recognise the reality and to devise policies that will allow Africa to take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of [its] emigrant citizens,” the Network of African Science Academies has said.