New challenges require investing in young scientists

There is a need to double efforts to strengthen collaboration between scientists, governments and industry to find new and better solutions adapted to rapidly evolving contexts like the Russia-Ukraine war.

The war has seen the prices of commodities like wheat, maize, sunflower oil, and crude oil soar in more than 36 countries globally, many of which are African countries that import at least 50% of their wheat from Russia or Ukraine.

It is, therefore, critical for African countries to continue investing heavily in their young people to study science and facilitate increased research outputs that create shared values and promote green growth for sustainable development.

This is the reason for the creation of PASET (the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering, and Technology) and, more specifically, the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF): to ensure that African countries have strong research and training institutions, able to train capable researchers and science leaders and innovators to drive growth and sustainability.

These were some of the key remarks at the Pan-African hybrid RSIF Conference on 28-29 June 2022, co-organised by the RSIF regional coordination unit, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe), and the University Mohammed VI Polytechnic in Ben Guerir, Morocco, a PASET international partner institution.

PhD cohorts an achievement

RSIF, a PASET flagship programme delivering on PASET’s mission, has broad goals that include:

• Creating a pool of highly skilled scientists, professionals, and innovators in ASET (applied sciences, engineering, and technology) areas.

• Identifying and nurturing young talented Africans who wish to further their studies in ASET fields where expertise is needed most.

• Addressing imbalances in the number of women and disadvantaged groups in ASET fields in Africa.

• Building African universities’ capacities to provide relevant ASET training and to ensure continued investment in scaling up the ASET education and workforce.

Professor Aminata Sall Diallo, executive director of the PASET executive board, said: “Unfortunately, Africa remains a net importer of food, despite having 60% of its arable land [being] uncultivated. The systematic application of science can significantly change this.”

The conference, with the theme ‘African-led science, technology and innovation for contributing to the SDGs and stimulating global development’ sought, from a practical viewpoint, to look at the current context marked by the digital revolution, conflicts and climate crisis and consider implications for higher education, research and innovation in Africa, in terms of both strategic investments and partnerships.

Together, the participants, drawn from academia expressed their commitment to the PASET RSIF Programme to boost science, research and technology for the African continent’s development.

One of the major PASET-RSIF achievements to date is the four cohorts of PhD scholars totalling more than 245 at various stages of their research. Of the 245 PhD scholars, 39% are women, which is significantly higher than the global average of 28% women in ASET areas.

“I am pleased to note that RSIF continues to enhance women’s performance and has recently updated their gender strategy for pursuing this. Women, and men, are equally critical for our development,” said Dr Valentine Uwamariya, Rwanda’s minister of education and PASET governing council chair.

“The RSIF mentorship platform that will be rolled out shortly will play an important role in supporting RSIF PhD students’ performance,” she added.

Green technologies and best practices examined

Another achievement is the increased engagement of the private sector within RSIF’s network, for instance, the partnership between RSIF and Nestlé. Partnerships with Microsoft and IBM Africa are also being discussed.

Dr Segenet Kelemu, director-general of Icipe, highlighted the key objectives of the conference which were to discuss the role of science, technology, and innovation (STI) while embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including digital innovation.

Discussions also focused on how to stimulate the production of relevant skills needed to facilitate innovations and examine how governments, universities, industry and the NGO sector can co-create solutions with a shared value that generate both economic and social benefits.

Participants deliberated about how the RSIF can support transformative green technologies that support green growth and the transition to a green and knowledge-based economy in Africa towards sustainable development; and reviewed best practices for managing international university partnerships.

This includes modalities for positively impacting institutional capacities of African universities, their wider innovation systems and the potential for RSIF to unleash multiplier effects over time, and explore resource mobilisation for the sustainability of the RSIF.

Kelemu said: “We see the increased public interest in STI that contribute solutions to our societal challenges. Governments ought to respond to this public interest by providing leadership, including coordinating multi-stakeholder efforts for our common good.

“I encourage you to engage and reflect on the future of Africa’s STI and how we can connect and partner together through the pooled fund RSIF to deliver science solutions jointly – nurture future science leaders, increase high-quality scientific production and build stronger universities and research institutions.”

Uwamariya told participants that Rwanda was one of the first governments to contribute to RSIF in 2018, hence its commitment will remain solid.

She added that the creation of PASET is hinged on Africa’s need to ensure adequate scientific capacity to respond to the challenges facing Africa and ensure a meaningful life for Africa’s population, in line with the vision of the African Union’s Agenda 2063.