Time to build a pipeline of innovation for Africa

It is widely accepted that research and innovation are key drivers of competitiveness and economic growth. A recent World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index showed that Africa was lagging behind in higher education and training, innovation and technological readiness.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The index also enumerated several challenges, but we want to focus on two of the reasons Africa lags behind: an inadequately educated workforce and an insufficient capacity to innovate.

These challenges are not restricted to Africa, they are global. How can African governments create and sustain an ecosystem of innovation, particularly growing from higher education institutions? The African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 aims to address Africa’s transition to an innovation-led, knowledge economy and most governments have varying strategies.

At the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences we seek to address these challenges from various angles.

Innovation learners

First, we must acknowledge that despite constraints some countries are doing better than expected. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the Global Innovation Index 2014 classified Burkina Faso, Gambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Rwanda as ‘innovation learners’ for performing at least 10% higher than expected for their gross domestic product or GDP.

These countries demonstrate improvement in categories of human capital and research and market sophistication. Sustained growth, however, cannot come about without proper reform and investment in higher education research and development or R&D.

In 2006, Kofi Annan, then United Nations secretary-general, said the university must become an ‘engine of development’ to strengthen knowledge production and innovation. In the United States, the knowledge production ratio – the percentage of research universities compared to post-secondary institutions – is about 5%, and in China, it is 3%.

Africa’s R&D happens in two parallel systems. In the first track, universities provide education and training, and in the second, national research institutes undertake sector-specific research in agriculture, health etc. Research activity in universities is therefore undervalued and most university programmes are geared at producing undergraduates.

In 2011, an eight-country OECD study of universities in Africa found postgraduate enrolment at masters and doctoral levels to be perilously low compared to an 88% undergraduate enrolment. Likewise, staff in seven of the eight countries were predominantly junior, under-qualified academics with limited potential to be nurtured into research leaders.

The few PhDs and post-doctorates tend to be ‘promoted’ to administrative, rather than research leadership positions, further stifling knowledge generation.

Nurturing young researchers

The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS, is trying to establish a best practice in this regard through its innovative graduate training which includes an entrepreneurship component.

Building impactful research capacity is key to this and our AIMS Research Chairs, that draw exceptional African researchers working outside of Africa to return to the continent, are a significant stepping stone. These research chairs are attached to one of our six centres of excellence. Our researchers not only do cutting-edge research, but they nurture PhD candidates and post-docs within the local academic community.

This model is not unique to AIMS – the University of Cape Town and others have been doing this for years. We believe this is one way to nurture strong scientists at universities across the continent.

Our success is strongly related to how we teach mathematical sciences and our view of pedagogy. We focus on critical thinking and problem solving skills and our global faculty focus on producing independent scientists that use mathematical sciences to solve problems in various fields and sectors. Our alumni usually go on to pursue PhDs and eventually return to replenish their local academic community.

Innovative graduate level teaching and research chairs alone are not enough. Research has to be actively encouraged starting at an undergraduate level, and sustained investments in graduate and postgraduate research is critical to creating the research ecosystem necessary to drive research-based innovation.

An investment environment

There are no shortcuts in this regard. But even this is not enough by itself. Advanced economies have moved to a focus on labs to start-up in order to foster innovation. Universities like Imperial College London have their own process where researchers are nurtured and financed to take ideas from the lab to start-up to scale-up.

This is almost non-existent in Africa, although South African universities such as Stellenbosch University – through its LaunchLab – are taking the lead in this regard.

The point is that it is not enough to have highly qualified faculty to produce innovators. There has to be a system that takes research from university labs to revenue-producing start-ups and fuels existing and new industries. This means that governments must facilitate local venture capitalism and create an investment environment that includes universities.

AIMS has been actively engaging governments in this regard and we hope to expand our own research and industry initiatives to further this innovation model. As our founder, Professor Neil Turok, has said: “Africa must compete at the highest level of the global knowledge economy or sink into catastrophic irrelevance.”

Public engagement

At AIMS, we like to say that the next Einstein will be from Africa. For this to happen, we must also address the public engagement shortfall. We don’t hear nearly enough about the excellent research coming from African researchers. We also have a pipeline issue. Retaining strong researchers starts with how we teach mathematics and science at the primary and secondary level.

Further, we need to recalibrate our view of innovation – sustained innovation cannot happen without research. Universities, if provided with the necessary faculty and investment, will produce strong scientists.

Strong scientists, nurtured and provided with financial and non-financial resources, can turn ideas into businesses. Businesses can become industries and create jobs. This will have a direct impact on the economy and lead to further investments in the innovation ecosystem.

Every stakeholder is concerned, from the government to university to private sector to citizen. The good news is that it can be done and we believe in this new story of Africa.

Thierry Zomahoun is the president and CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences or AIMS, leading the growth of Africa’s first and largest network of centres of excellence in mathematical sciences. Under his tenure, AIMS has grown into a global network with more than 1,200 graduates from 42 African nations and its approach has won international acclaim for its scientific model and independent thinking. AIMS is the umbrella network for the Next Einstein Forum, Quantum Leap Africa, the AIMS Gender Responsive Mathematics Teacher Training Program and other initiatives. Professor Barry Green is the AIMS chief academic and research officer, and director of AIMS South Africa and Cameroon, and is former head of the department of mathematical sciences at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Green has been closely involved with the growth of AIMS since its founding in 2003 and was appointed the second director in April 2010.