Growing a generation of mathematicians in Africa

Mathematics is “vital” for achieving a thriving science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, workforce in Africa, according to experts. Yet it faces critical challenges: low university funding, a regional brain drain, and reduced intake of undergraduate students, particularly women, in university mathematics programmes.

However, interest in the subject remains high and its future development looks promising, United States-based mathematics professor Overtoun Jenda told University World News.

He is a member of the Southern Africa Mathematical Sciences Association or SAMSA, which drove the establishment of Masamu – an initiative that aims to promote international research collaboration in mathematical sciences.

Working through SAMSA-affiliated institutions, Masamu – which means ‘mathematics’ in Southern Africa’s Bantu languages – is now considered one of most influential programmes in mathematics teaching and research in Africa.

Masamu participants have reported increased content knowledge of mathematical subjects (87% of participants), specific plans for future international research collaborations (96%), and increased collaboration and understanding between the US and Africa (97%).

Workshops 2016

Later this year, the sixth annual meeting of the Masamu Advanced Study Institute, or MASI, will bring together graduate students and junior faculty for 10 days at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. The workshops will run concurrently with the SAMSA annual conference.*

Funding from the US National Science Foundation in 2010 helped to create MASI and support its workshops in mathematical sciences in 2011 and 2012, while British Council funds were used to support a Masamu strategic planning meeting held in the United Kingdom in 2011.

Since then interest in the programme has been high, said Jenda, who is also co-chair of Masamu. “Training mathematicians in Africa is exciting and extremely rewarding.

“It is most satisfying to see the Masamu effect in the rapid growth of research activity in the region, and to witness bonds that are made among participants of all ages, thus strengthening US and Southern African human infrastructure in mathematical sciences research for many years to come.”

Growth in collaboration

Stellenbosch University mathematics professor and SAMSA president Farai Nyabadza, said that as a consequence of the Masamu programme, US and European research mathematicians have found talented Africans to work with, creating collaborative linkages and bilateral faculty exchanges with full participation from young mathematicians.

The result has been numerous joint research papers published in refereed journals and presentations at international conferences.

“Africa is ripe and thirsty for international research collaboration in mathematical sciences,” Nyabadza told University World News.

Numerous opportunities in Africa exist for trained mathematicians including in areas of information and national security, actuarial science, banking, education, data collection and analysis, modelling and computational methods in business and government – fields in which the Masamu programme has strong research groups.


However, there are challenges to growing the community of mathematicians globally and particularly in Africa. Among these is a shortage in human resources.

“Africa has outstanding research mathematicians but most universities in developing countries do not have a critical mass of research mathematicians to sustain robust research programmes. Consequently, young mathematicians eventually give up on research or move to greener pastures in other countries, said Nyabadza.

He said there has been a significant growth of universities, both public and private, in many countries in Africa, but this growth has not been met with increases in academic staff.

“The age distribution of mathematicians is not uniform. The number of established research mathematicians is very small due to brain drain and mandatory early retirements that are detrimental to retention of outstanding home-grown mathematicians,” Nyabadza added.

Encouraging female mathematicians

Another challenge is a shortage of female mathematicians.

Nyabadza, who is also co-chair of the local SAMSA conference organising committee, said growing the mathematical community was a global as well as an African challenge, partly due to low participation of women in the discipline at postgraduate and undergraduate levels.

According to Jenda, there has been significant growth in the participation of women – especially in Kenya – and in the participation of countries outside the Southern African Development Community region in SAMSA activities since 2011.

A key addition to the Masamu programme is the Kovalevskaia Research Grants, which were instituted in 2014 to encourage upcoming female mathematicians from Sub-Saharan Africa. The grant is awarded to two women from the region who have demonstrated outstanding work with respect to research and publications in pure (theoretical) or applied mathematics.

“The hope is that recipients will serve as role models in encouraging other women to study STEM-related subjects,” said Jenda.

Building institutional capacity

According to Jenda, a primary objective of the Masamu programme is to strengthen mathematical sciences departments at universities in Southern Africa.

“The goal is to have strong programmes at SAMSA institutions so that their students, like many from other continents, can go straight into a PhD programme rather than going first to a remedial programme such as the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, AIMS,” he said.

According to Jenda, using AIMS – a pan-African network for postgraduate maths education and research – as a gateway to PhD programmes was a poor reflection on universities and an indicator of low academic standards in many university departments.

However: “The Masamu programme and AIMS are complementary, as many AIMS participants that enrol in PhD programmes in the SAMSA region receive additional training at Masamu institutes and research workshops.”

Government support

Jenda said since mathematics was vital to a thriving STEM research and workforce, African governments should ensure that universities have mathematical sciences departments that are well-funded and have well-trained faculty, in order to have rigorous training at the highest standards that prepares students for PhD programmes and research careers.

African governments should also fund initiatives such as the Masamu programme that provide a platform for research and training through international collaboration for mathematics faculty and students.

Jenda said the Masamu programme had responded with a Pure Mathematics Initiative to the critical shortage in many Southern African universities of pure mathematicians and statisticians. This shortage meant that advanced courses in mathematics were not being offered or were being taught by faculty who do not have the necessary expertise.

“The goal of the Pure Mathematics Initiative is to find sponsors for a master of science programme for training future research mathematicians with strong backgrounds in pure mathematics,” Jenda told University World News.

Collaborative research network

Masamu runs a collaborative research network consisting of 55 research academics – 26 from Sub-Saharan Africa, 21 from the US, two from Canada and six from Europe.

They form four research teams in pure mathematics (algebra and geometry, analysis and topology, coding theory and information theory, and graph theory) and four teams in applied mathematics (epidemiological modelling, numerical approximation of solutions of partial differential equations, mathematics of finance, and statistics).

Under the leadership of senior researchers, students and junior faculty members from the US and Africa are exposed to research problems and topics that are especially meaningful in certain parts of the world, specifically in areas such as mathematical biology and disease modelling. Jenda said exposure to these research topics has given participants motivation to continue their studies and develop new projects.

In addition to the collaborative network and MASI, Masamu runs research workshops, career development workshops, and senior research scientists’ workshops.

“The programme welcomes new researchers and the formation of new research teams. Masamu is also open to undergraduate and graduate students, post-docs, and early-career faculty (rank lower than associate professor),” he said.

Students need to submit a formal application to the institute. According to Jenda, current funding for participants is limited, so an additional condition is that participants, including researchers, are expected to identify their own source of funding.

Jenda said SAMSA’s success in sourcing funds from international foundations and organisations – including the London Mathematical Society, the US National Science Foundation, the African Mathematics Millennium Science Initiative, the International Center for Pure and Applied Mathematics, and the New York-based Simons Foundation – had provided support for the increasing number of students wanting to participate.

* The sixth annual MASI meeting and research workshops will be held at the University of Pretoria in South Africa from 18-27 November. The SAMSA annual conference will be held at the University of Pretoria from 21-25 November.