Innovators set Grand Challenges Africa research agenda

African higher education must increase its interaction with the informal sector if it is to drive the continent’s innovation agenda and respond to development challenges, said Professor Berhanu Abegaz, executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, at a gathering of 420 African innovators held to set the research agenda for Grand Challenges Africa.

Many universities have not integrated well with the societies in which they are embedded, and have failed to respond adequately to development needs that must be tackled to move Africa forward, according to Abegaz.

Most innovations that had responded to the needs of African people came from the informal sector – the main employer on the continent – rather than from universities. This had relegated higher education to the back seat in driving innovation.

“We need to reorient our higher education systems to enable them to build a culture of innovation,” he told University World News at a Grand Challenges Africa forum held in the Kenyan capital Nairobi from 23-26 February.

The meeting attracted participants from more than 40 countries, and was aimed at informing a scientific and innovation agenda for Africa and laying the groundwork for scientific advocacy efforts to increase investment in African research and development.

More than 100 international donors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada and the United States Agency for International Development, were also there.

Grand Challenges Africa

Grand Challenges is a collection of grant programmes that fosters innovation to solve key global health and development problems.

Grand Challenges Africa – launched last September by the African Academy of Sciences or AAS, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and international partners – will help to tackle the problem of low investment in research and development and to drive innovation that will contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Currently, Africa accounts for 15% of the global population and 25% of the global disease burden, but only produces about 2% of the world’s research output,” said the AAS. The initiative seeks to bridge the gap between industry and innovators and to bring together innovators and potential funders, to catalyse innovations that overcome pressing problems.

The Nairobi meeting was convened by the AAS’ Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa or AESA, which runs Grand Challenges Africa and is a platform for developing science strategies and capacity and funding health research.

AESA also serves as a think tank for science development in Africa, and manages international and African grants. Grand Challenges partners have invested US$120 million in 380 projects in 29 African countries.

East Africa is the biggest recipient of the Grand Challenges Africa innovation fund, receiving 54% of the money, followed by West and Southern Africa with 23% and 17% respectively. Collaborations benefited from 4% of the funds.

Kenya has been the biggest beneficiary, having received US$26.1 million for 113 projects, followed by Uganda with US$19.2 million and South Africa with US$9.2 million.

The money question

Aggrey Ambali, head of the science, technology and innovation hub of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development – an implementing arm of the African Union – pointed out that the African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa or STISA provided a framework for a sustainable African science and technology agenda in the coming decade.

The strategy focused on six priority areas where science, technology and innovation can contribute to addressing African development challenges:
  • • Eradicate hunger and achieve food and nutrition security: support agricultural programmes and research in agronomy, biosciences, water, soil and climate change mitigation.
  • • Prevention and control of diseases: effective medicines, diagnostic tools, vector control and vaccines, innovation in traditional medicine, strengthening health systems and tackling HIV-Aids and malaria.
  • • Communication – physical and intellectual: road, rail and water transport, building knowledge production systems around major infrastructure, and energy and renewable energy.
  • • Protect our space: natural resources and land and water management, desertification, biodiversity and protection of ecosystems; environment, pollution and waste management; climate change and early warning systems; and building Earth observation capability.
  • • Create wealth: boost research output, incubation and technology parks, new frontier technologies, and knowledge transfer and adaptation; strengthen intellectual property and regulatory systems; and support innovation among Africa’s burgeoning youth.
  • • Live together – build the community: governance, social sciences and the humanities; building a science culture and popularising science; awards and recognition of excellence in science, technology and innovation; and promoting green technologies, and biosafety.
To make progress, the African Union has called on governments to commit 1% of gross domestic product to science, technology and innovation. In fact, said Ambali, many countries should spend more than just 1%.

“Smaller countries like Burundi, Djibouti and Rwanda, among others, should not compare themselves to bigger economies such as South Africa. They ought to spend an even higher percentage since the minimum 1% could mean very little money."

African universities needed to align their research and development work more closely with the continent’s development needs and the Sustainable Development Goals. They should also move from the mass production of graduates and focus more on quality education.

Ambali said Africa faced many hurdles in the area of regulatory systems, intellectual property rights and trade-related laws. Governments and stakeholders needed to create an enabling environment for innovation and introduce incentives such as award schemes for innovators.

“We need as Africa to change and build trust in local scientists. We must have confidence in them and enable them to drive an innovation culture in Africa,” Ambali added.

Overcoming barriers

The director of the new Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, Thomas Kariuki, said that in executing its programmes, including Grand Challenges Africa, the continental body was striving to overcome language barriers to collaboration that have existed between Anglophone and Francophone African countries.

Many initiatives in the past have been restricted to English-speaking Africa – or less often French-speaking Africa – locking out countries based on language.

“AESA will support projects across Africa’s geographical divide. All initiatives must demonstrate collaborations that dismantle language and regional barriers and that are truly pan-African in nature,” he said in an interview.

Universities must solve society’s problems

Berhanu Abegaz told University World News that currently most academic publication by African researchers involved international collaborations, with a mere 4% being intra-Africa collaborations, “thus failing to solve African problems as defined by Africans”.

Nelson Torto, chief executive of the Botswana Institute for Technology, Research and Innovation, said universities remained far removed from potential consumers of the knowledge they generate, which is published in scholarly journals that do not reach or benefit society.

African scientists needed to work with the public in research programmes. Part of why there was little uptake of innovation created by academia was because this did not happen, he said.

“What universities need to do is start co-creation of innovations with the people targeted to consume the innovations, in order to create a sense of ownership.”

With universities funded by governments through taxpayers’ money, they were obliged to focus research on solving problems faced by people. “All scholars are obliged to lead in social innovations that solve society’s problems,” he told University World News.

There was also an urgent need to institutionalise and entrench mentorship programmes in universities, if more innovations were to come from academia. As matters stood, Torto observed, more innovations coming out of universities were by students and not academics.