Mathematical sciences investments could change Africa

Africa largely missed the analogue technology revolution 50 years ago. Experts say the digital age will come to an end faster. There is a need to position Africa to catch up with information and communication technology and be viewed as a global player, said Thierry Zomahoun, president and CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS.

Zomahoun was speaking at the announcement of a US$25 million fund by the Canada-based MasterCard Foundation to his organisation. There was also discussion at the meeting in Cape Town on 4 June on how science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, could change Africa’s fortunes.

The MasterCard money will fund 500 academically gifted but financially disadvantaged students to undertake a masters in a STEM field.

“There is no doubt that mathematics underpins every aspect of the modern country, but this success would only be possible with investment in mathematical sciences,” Zomahoun said.

AIMS is just such an investment – “a pan-African network of centres of excellence for postgraduate education, research and public engagement in mathematical sciences” is how AIMS describes itself.

Founded in Cape Town in 2003 as a continental centre for postgraduate training and research providing advanced maths skills to talented students from across Africa, AIMS operates as a partnership between African and international universities and its students are taught by top academics from around the world.

AIMS has subsequently opened centres in Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon and Tanzania. Some 750 students from 42 African countries have graduated, and most have gone into masters and PhD programmes at excellent universities in Africa and abroad.

Zomahoun, who founded the Next Einstein Initiative – a core programme of AIMS that involves creating 15 centres of excellence across Africa focused on teaching mathematical sciences to African graduates – said the continent was at a crossroads and had to continue to invest in STEM fields.

Africa, said Gaston Barban, high commissioner of Canada to South Africa, should not only be seen as a place of development assistance or economic exploitation.

“Most people in the West do not see Africa as a place of science and technology, they do not know what is being done here in this field and what can be done,” said Barban. Programmes such as Next Einstein would help change negative views of Africa.

Getting the matrix right

Perceptions of Africa as being incapable of producing cutting-edge science could be changed with the adoption of the right policies, suitable funding and excellent programmes.

“Mathematics and sciences have been made subjects of mystery in South Africa and Africa,” said Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of science and technology.

In some cases, she said, teachers discouraged young people from doing mathematics, and that needed to change. She called for the employment of teachers competent in science and technology to help students succeed.

Pandor said Africa needed to continue opening university spaces, which it has done in the last decade, to enable more students to obtain higher education. At the same time, attention to basic education was still needed along with a firm focus on literacy and numeracy. “Without the basics, we are not going to be able to achieve our ambitious objectives.”

Although quality remained a big challenge, Pandor said, great strides had been made across Africa. However, it was worrisome that the progress did not appear to anticipate the next step. Students were still dropping out from schools and universities.

Zomahoun said a major problem was that about 80% of university students in Sub-Saharan Africa were in the humanities and social sciences.

“If we are to continue on that path we will perpetuate the colonial heritage and legacy. This has to stop…We can no longer waste time emphasising one against the other,” he said.

Africa, Zomahoun continued, had been employing up to 150,000 expatriates in STEM fields, which amounted to US$4 billion per annum. If the continent wanted to exploit its own resources, it had to produce a critical mass of scientists.

Is language a barrier for STEM?

It is often argued that science is best communicated in a language that students understand, if they are to grasp complex formulae and analytical concepts.

Zomahoun acknowledged that it was very difficult to study STEM fields in a second language, and at AIMS there were attempts to tackle the language of instruction and science at the same time.

Pandor said South Africa had successfully managed to use a local language in science and technology – Afrikaans – but it was done to the detriment of other languages and was an extremely costly exercise.

While language could be talked about in terms of accessibility, at the end of the day the question was what needed to be prioritised, and the answer was human resources and society, said Pandor.

“What I want to see are more masters and PhDs in science and engineering, innovation through research, more knowledge creation, products from Africa, industry and manufacturing, relying on our intellect and ability.

“So while the language issue is important, I will not allow it to hold me back,” she said.

The US$25 million fund

More than 150 years ago, when the industrial revolution took off in Europe, there were associated opportunities and problems, and the big question was finding solutions to them.

Colleges responded, said Professor Phillip Clay, a member of the board of directors of the MasterCard Foundation, and among many other things experts went on to create the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to train the people and conduct the research needed to advance the revolution.

“We support AIMS in the same vein,” he said. “Scientists were needed to tackle the puzzles and solve the problems; it was not accidental that youths were trained in these areas.”

Clay said the US$25 million funding for AIMS, to be deployed over six years, would also be used to create a teacher training programme that would improve the quality of around 3,000 secondary school maths and science teachers in Cameroon.

The MasterCard Foundation runs a scholars programme to support talented but financially disadvantaged students, mostly from Africa. AIMS has thus joined a global network of 21 scholars programme partners who are committed to educating Africa’s young leaders

Clay said the responsibility was to make sure that there was not a repeat of mistakes of the past in Africa, when scientists were not trained.

Considering that in the decades to come, the world’s biggest population of youth would be in Africa, young people had the power to take opportunities that would grow with the economy.

“We are unapologetic about it,” said Zomahoun. With forecasts that Africa would eventually have 40% of the world’s population, “the probability is that the next Einstein is going to come from here”.

Architecture of research and innovation

Zomahoun said strong sustainable research infrastructure would be key to boosting Africa’s research outputs.

Pandor also noted the need to expand research institutions across Africa if the continent was to witness the kind of progress that was flowing from world-class HIV research in South Africa, the research chairs model that was attracting top researchers from other African countries, the huge Square Kilometre Array research project and institutions such as AIMS.

Such initiatives would create opportunities that would attract scientists in the diaspora back to Africa.

There was a plan to work with other institutions across Africa so that South Africa was not the only country offering specialised expertise and programmes, Pandor said. South African universities were encouraged to partner with universities elsewhere on the continent, as well as share research resources.