Africa should take maths more seriously, say researchers

Many African universities still do not acknowledge the role of mathematics as a foundation stone of modern society and a model for rational inquiry and creativity in human development.

Guy Tsafack, a Cameroonian PhD graduate from the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, says the lack of proper laboratories at many African universities is evidence of this attitude.

“We should not only go to a classroom and talk about mathematics. We have to go to the lab and say, this is the implementation of what we were talking about in the class,” he told University World News.

“Africa should invest more in mathematics to solve problems in sectors such as infrastructure, agriculture and finances. Engineering, science, and technology have contributed to great inventions globally, with the experts in all those fields having outstanding maths skills,” Tsafack says.

African institutes of higher learning should give more attention to how computer sciences and mathematics can be used to solve the continent’s problems in a “real and concrete” way. “The first thing we do is modelling, [by] asking how we can solve this problem.”

Women and maths

Institutional biases and entrenched societal constructs also add to the challenge of acknowledging the role of mathematics. Snethemba Hlobisile Maduna, a PhD candidate specialising in contact geometry at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, says it is even more difficult for women to excel at mathematics.

She recounts how angry she was when, as an undergraduate, she heard a lecturer telling his students that “women don’t know maths”.

“In that lecture room there were just two women, with the rest of the class being filled up with men,” she told University World News.

According to a UNESCO global education report for 2017-18, only 18% to 31% of science researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa are women, compared to 49% in Southeast Europe and the Caribbean, 44% in Central Asia and Latin America, and 37% in the Arab states.

Maduna says mathematics is still a male-dominated field. Neither policymakers nor managers of educational institutions have prioritised mathematics for women, she says: “Mathematics has no gender, both men and women can do it.”

She says high school girls often don’t take mathematics seriously, and this attitude, in turn, finds its way into universities, where it is a “feared subject”.

“Because of stereotypes, most girls grow up with the mentality that they cannot do mathematics; that they do not have the mental capability. And, as women, we are not taken seriously in terms of academia,” Maduna says.

Cerene Rathilal, a lecturer at the department of mathematics and applied mathematics at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, also points to the huge gender disparity in the field of mathematics and sciences in Africa.

“There is less female representation among the staff at our universities. It is one of the challenges, as there isn’t someone else out there that [female students] can connect with on things that pertain to female students,” Rathilal explains.

“Women should be in every field. We should be represented equally, and we should have the same opportunities as our [male] counterparts.”

Rathilal believes the field could change significantly if more women could be role models for future generations.

“We need to create spaces for girls and women to thrive. We need to ensure that there are networks available for girls to feel welcome, seek advice and navigate the challenges and enter spaces that previously women would not have entered,” she says.

Financial investments

Grace Nnennaya Ogwo, who is doing research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says many students are scared off from doing mathematics, or drop out if they do enter the field. She argues that teaching could be part of the problem, as many students seemingly fail to grasp mathematical concepts.

Shakir Mohamed, a senior researcher in statistical machine learning at Alphabet subsidiary DeepMind, points to the many good universities across Africa that lack adequate financial and infrastructural investments.

“Because of the underinvestment in these universities, other areas which would have come from the [universities] get affected. For instance, innovations that could be [made] possible as start-ups get affected,” he says.

Mohamed adds that higher education needs more strategies and business models that allow institutions to survive, if not thrive.

Interviews were done at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, an annual networking event that brings together a diverse group of young researchers and prominent global laureates in the fields of mathematics and computer science. Although the event was hosted in 2022, the statements about mathematics education and research in Africa remain relevant.