Rising Africa must harness knowledge, science for growth

Africa must respond to the education, knowledge and communications revolutions and mobilise knowledge and science not just for sustainable development but as major drivers of growth, the President of Mauritius Ameenah Gurib-Fakim told Going Global 2016 last week.

“As a scientist, I remain convinced that strong institutions, science, technology, innovation and higher education are prime movers and will continue to play a profound role in advancing knowledge and improving the human condition.”

Gurib-Fakim was addressing 800 participants from 80 countries at the British Council’s Going Global 2016 gathering held at the Cape Town international Convention Centre from 3-5 May – the first time the conference has been held in Africa.

The former biodiversity scientist is the first elected woman president of Mauritius – the Indian Ocean island that is Africa’s most developed country – and has become a leading global champion for higher education and research in Africa.

She is managing director of CIDP Research and Innovation, investigating the medical and nutritive implications of indigenous plants, and was professor with a chair in organic chemistry at the University of Mauritius, where she was pro vice-chancellor until 2010.

Mauritius has positioned itself as a knowledge hub for Africa, expanding its higher education sector to attract students from across the continent and world, and along with Rwanda is leading the charge to build science for development and knowledge societies.

Africa rising

Gurib-Fakim pointed out that Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world’s growing regions, with annual economic growth rates averaging 3.3% for 2016, according to the World Bank.

“A commodities boom, improved governance, sound macroeconomic fundamentals, commitment to reform and new resource discoveries have all contributed to this growth trend, helping to reverse 20 years of economic decline.”

Africa is also the world’s youngest continent. By 2050 its population is projected to double to two billion people. Channeling this human reservoir to productive sectors offers unrivalled opportunities and requires skillful management and vision.

Africa’s ‘youth bulge’ must be harnessed through greater public investment in education – particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and in vocational skills and innovation “to build a valuable base of human capital that will serve as the engine for economic transformation”, said Gurib-Fakim.

“I am convinced that the social and economic transformation of the African continent will happen only when higher education, better access to health care and greater emphasis on knowledge becomes central to the development debate.”

With online learning a growing source of education for students worldwide, quality and access to broadband services and online content must become an African imperative.

“Shared growth can be achieved only when the new generations of talented and ambitious young Africans are healthy and fully equipped with the right skills, knowledge and competencies to formulate and implement African solutions for Africa’s challenges.”

From ideas to action

Africa shares a common goal – to keep improving human conditions through higher education, to provide backing for the positive narrative of ‘Africa Rising’. The question is how to transform a solid record of sustained economic growth into measures that will lead to a reduction in poverty and inequality, and increased opportunities for shared prosperity.

“Africa has tremendous potential – it is home to more than 30% of the world’s mineral reserves. Properly managed, these endowments offer unparalleled opportunity for economic growth and development.”

With new mineral discoveries, the ability to extract, refine and market these resources is critical, as is the need to tackle the infrastructure gap for an increasingly urbanised continent.

High quality infrastructure could be a magnet for foreign investment, Gurib-Fakim argued. But over the past three decades, per capita output of electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa has remained virtually flat. “Only 16% of all roads are paved, compared with 58% in South Asia. These shortfalls represent huge costs to businesses – and to people.”

Strengthening the institutional and governance frameworks that manage these resources is a good place to start, the president said. Technological innovation also offers great possibilities. “It can help support global integration, improve productivity and foster inclusion.

“Harnessing its power effectively and efficiently is the challenge.” This needs resources to carry out innovative research, and in cash-strapped developing countries those resources have to be supplied by governments.

“Nations that have excelled at innovation have benefitted from substantial government investment, especially in building high quality higher education systems and in the training of outstanding young minds in information technology, science, engineering and related fields.”

Potential lies in people

Africa’s greatest potential lies in its people, Gurib-Fakim stressed. The demographic youth dividend will not be realised without enhanced equity and representation across society “including senior academic leadership”.

However the system won’t reform itself without being challenged to change the status quo by policy-makers, institutional governance “and a growing body of female academics putting themselves forward and taking up seats in the boardroom of academia”.

There are tremendous gains to be made in overcoming constraints to African women, most of whom are employed in informal activities with low productivity, incomes and prospects.

“By some estimates, the economic loss in developing countries from the education gap between girls and boys could be as high as US$90 billion a year – almost as much as the infrastructure gap for the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The smart move is to invest in women. Countries such as Rwanda are leading the way by increasing education access for girls, but the gender divide remains profound in higher education. Science degrees still have on average 30% to 40% fewer female students.

Science for growth

Investment in science, technology and innovation is no longer an option but a necessity, and it needs to be long-term and greater for the sustainable development of research and nurturing of human capital to create current and future scientists equipped to take on multifaceted challenges.

“The few that have been trained have already left the continent through brain drain. This trend has to be reversed.”

Harnessing new technologies, promoting research and development, and translating academic research through entrepreneurship and appropriate intellectual property are ways to promote productivity, job opportunities and the ability to move up the production value chain.

Successful universities, Gurib-Fakim told Going Global 2016, are those that provide the support, expertise and connections to help entrepreneurs move a product to market.

OECD member countries have 12 times per capita the number of scientists and engineers working in research and development, compared to low-income countries. “They also publish 25 times as many scientific journal articles.”

The quality of higher education in Africa will depend on the quality of maths and science education. This calls for the capacity building of science teachers and enabling policies for science, technology and innovation at all levels of education.

“Advances in ICT and increased connectivity in and between African countries will offer added opportunity to leverage Africa’s research diaspora in Europe and North America,” the president pointed out.

The six-fold increase in foreign direct investment flows into Africa over the last 10 years highlights the importance of building local expertise and promoting collaboration that helps to improve the quality, relevance and depth of scientific education.

There is a pressing need to establish strong links with industry and the private sector, but unfortunately this dialogue is not happening in many African universities – and where it is, not fast enough. “The link between technology and the economy can no longer be overlooked. Innovation is pushing ahead at warp speed,” Gurib-Fakim said.

“As Africans, we need to become producers and not just consumers of knowledge and we should capitalise on the momentum gained at the global level while recognising that all actions are local. We have to mobilise cutting-edge knowledge and forge partnerships anchored in the common good for the benefit of all, and become the voice of change.”