Wanted: A mutually beneficial STI cooperation agenda

To enhance the impact of Africa-Europe science, technology and innovation (STI) cooperation, it is necessary to focus on building capacities for long-term win-win partnerships that are co-founded, co-managed, co-owned and co-financed with an understanding of institutional and country contexts, along with respect for local knowledge and needs.

Higher-education stakeholders participating at the Africa-Europe Science Collaboration and Innovation Platform’s Africa-Europe Science and Innovation Forum held from 7-10 March highlighted ways that Europe could help African universities overcome challenges in using STI for developing sustainable economies. They also suggested solutions to barriers facing Africa-Europe STI cooperation.

The Africa-Europe Science Collaboration and Innovation Platform (AERAP) is a stakeholder forum convened to define priorities for science and innovation cooperation between Africa and Europe. Meetings took place in Brussels, Belgium, with virtual participation.

STI challenges

Dr Petronella Chaminuka, head of the economic analysis unit of the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa, told University World News that there are several challenges facing African universities in using STI to develop knowledge-based economies. These include insufficient funding to develop locally adapted STI products and limited access to information and knowledge by certain user groups such as the poor, the young and small-scale farmers and businesses.

“Besides limited private sector involvement, which limits the uptake of knowledge within the economy, the existing initiatives from which the STI products are developed are fragmented due to the project approach most donors use to fund science,” Chaminuka said. “This approach results in many ‘successful’ pilots that never make it to scale for impact.”

Mamphoku Khuluvhe, director of system monitoring and labour market intelligence at the Department of Higher Education and Training in South Africa, said that African universities also find it difficult to recruit well-qualified and experienced STI staff, and have inadequate funding for curriculum development and reform. In addition, curricula are often outdated and there are not enough qualified maths and science lecturers.

Mmampei Chaba, chief director of multilateral and Africa cooperation of the Department of Science and Innovation, South Africa, said Africa needs post-school education and training systems that are skills-centred, innovation-led and entrepreneurship-driven to deal with the challenges universities face.

Dr Fred Awaah, lecturer in public administration, entrepreneurship development, leadership and global dimensions to business at the University of Professional Studies in Accra, Ghana, told University World News: “There is a nexus between drives to achieve the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16-25) and the use of STI. While these linkages have been established in many studies, the African region seems bereft of technology and accompanying technological infrastructure.”

According to Awaah, erratic power supply, low internet connectivity, a lack of and inadequate computers, untrained or insufficiently trained teachers in the use of STI equipment and resistance to innovations due to a lack of understanding are key challenges.

European help for African universities

Some African universities are collaborating with European institutions to overcome STI challenges. For instance, the doctoral programmes of the Africa Centre of Excellence at Lagos State University [in Nigeria] and the University of Burundi Doctoral School have tapped into the expertise in Europe and other parts of the world through online visiting lectureship, Awaah said. “This may be emulated by others to foster educational development in the region.”

He pointed out that, based on the evidence, any educational cooperation between Europe and Africa should consider knowledge transfer using technology as the base. “This can be done either in person (through fellowships), or through special teaching arrangements that enhance tapping the knowledge of both diasporas to the mutual benefit of both continents.”

Chaminuka also indicated that the best way in which Europe could help African universities to enhance STI’s role in developing knowledge-based economies, is by investing in long-term interventions that build on existing indigenous knowledge, contexts and lessons from past projects.

“This would enable successful interventions to scale for sustainability and impact. Europe could also help to invest in developing skills and capacities for local innovation rather than importing skills and technologies,” Chaminuka suggested.

Khuluvhe added that, “besides establishing initiatives to update university curricula, organising a programme for visiting professors to universities and organising staff and student exchange programmes, Europe could help African universities by facilitating opportunities for workplace-based learning for African students at European-based companies in Africa”. She also suggested a freely accessible, dedicated TV channel for maths and science for both school and university students.

Chaba said that one effective way for Europe to support the role of African universities in developing a knowledge-based economy is through international mobility programmes for academic staff, support professionals, and students. “This can provide valuable opportunities for learning from other environments and can be a powerful catalyst for innovation and the development of local solutions. However, it is important to recognise that solutions and approaches from the Global North cannot simply be transferred and applied in the Global South, especially in developing contexts,” she pointed out. “Any collaboration must prioritise mutual learning and respect for local knowledge and needs.”

To ensure that Africa-Europe collaboration is informed by the principles of equity, it is essential that Europe considers diversifying its investments and directing its financial resources to areas of collaborative research that are aligned with the development imperatives of African countries.

On a more pragmatic level, Europe can assist African universities to enhance the role of STI in developing knowledge-based economies by putting several measures in place. This includes funding instruments and programmes that can assist African universities to develop and equip their technology transfer offices and stimulate their contribution to innovation by directing funding for collaborative research to applied research, Chaba suggested.

“The measures also include creating instruments that expose African students to fields such as engineering and space sciences to large industries and SMMEs (small, medium and micro enterprises) in Europe along with enhancing coordination and support actions and financing instruments that stimulate collaboration between big industry, SMMEs, academia, and government.”

Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, chief executive officer of the National Research Foundation in South Africa, told University World News: “Many universities in Africa are using STI for developing knowledge-based economies in their countries. With more than 50% of Africa’s research capacity located in its universities, it is a fundamental source of innovation. Prime examples are universities that form part of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).”

Nelwamondo said ARUA’s partnership with the Guild of European Research-Internsive Universities, or The Guild, is a prominent example of how equitable university partnerships between African and European countries provide impetus for advancement.

“Understanding institutional and country contexts are fundamental considerations for effective partnerships, which is always a first step to avoiding a generic approach. Major challenges that European universities can help with include exposure opportunities for graduate students and emerging researchers, and fostering collaboration between academia and industry,” Nelwamondo pointed out. Science granting councils should also be engaged in an integrated systems approach to strengthen national knowledge economies for a co-created future.”

Cooperation agenda

Chaminuka said the roadmap towards the jointly funded EU-Africa Research & Innovation Partnership on Food and Nutrition Security and Sustainable Agriculture (FNSSA) is quite broad and includes most scientific areas. “It needs updating to include pandemics and shocks, and increased emphasis on capacity and skills development. There must be additional emphasis on scaling public good research and innovation for impact.”

Khuluvhe said several scientific areas should be included in the Africa-Europe cooperation agenda. These are energy and water as well as innovative ways to solve housing problems in Africa, and approaches to dealing with refugees along with transport, roads and climate change – especially managing floods, droughts and cyclones. She also suggested disaster management and solutions to improve access to data.

Expanding further, Chaba said entrepreneurship and commercialisation, [together with] the Fourth Industrial Revolution technological advances must also add to the Africa-Europe scientific cooperation agenda.

Barriers to STI cooperation

Chaba said: “Barriers to enhancing Africa-Europe cooperation in science and innovation include the persistent power imbalances that originated from colonial legacies. European countries continue to dominate the research landscape, with African countries often relegated to the role of passive recipients of knowledge.

“To address this, a shift in power dynamics is needed, including increased funding for African-led research and the recognition of African knowledge as valuable and worthy of partnership.”

Chaba said the African Union (AU) needs to invest more time in mobilising African member states to participate in and contribute to joint Africa-Europe programmes. “We tend to see the same countries from Africa participating in these programmes, and this needs to change. The AU also needs to develop platforms that will allow African countries to caucus and develop joint positions when participating in key Africa-Europe governance structures such as the AU-EU High-Level Policy Dialogue (HLPD) on STI.”

Awaah said that the diverse levels of development are a key barrier relevant to Africa-Europe STI cooperation.

“This usually comes with challenges of contextual misunderstanding related to knowledge sharing and also mistaken assumption and application of technology which may not work in the recipient continent as a result of divergent social cultural and specifically technological infrastructure,” Awaah indicated.

Chaminuka said that, in most cases, the relationship between partners is unequal. African partners do not have sufficient co-ownership of the agenda and are often recipients rather than co-founders of initiatives.

“We did a study in 2020 that showed that, for most of the projects in the FNSSA area, African partners do not act as project coordinators, and often get invited to consortia, rather than initiating and leading them,” she pointed out. The solution to this is to build capacities for long-term partnerships that are co-managed, co-owned and co-financed.”