African scientists are fostering a new R&D culture to reverse the continent’s brain drain

Innovating the future.
Innovating the future.
Image: EPA/Nic Bothma
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When it comes to scientific research and innovation, Africa is a global laggard. The continent contributes a paltry 1% of the world’s research output, a far cry from its position as the world’s second most populated continent.

Much of this problem is compounded by low-quality educational curricula, not to mention global funding that is skewed towards health and agricultural development and less so on science, technology, mathematics, and engineering projects. (STEM).

But all is not lost—as more and more African researchers broaden their horizon and engage in much-needed projects. These projects tackle issues ranging from food security, energy, transportation, to poverty, diseases like malaria and HIV, immunization, not to mention the challenges stemming from climate change. This has seen the number of papers from African researchers double in just over a decade, improving in quantity, quality, and international citation according to data from Scopus, the largest database of peer-reviewed literature.

But an increasing number of institutions, individuals and governments are also heralding a new era for scientific research by providing funds for diverse and Africa-specific scientific solutions. These include the Grand Challenges Africa Grants, which this year partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to provide $7 million in grants over the next five years for scientific breakthroughs in maternal healthcare and precision medicine in Africa.

There’s the Kwame Nkrumah Scientific award from the African Union, which gives $100,000 to top African scientists who provide innovations in life and earth science.  The Next Einstein Fellowship, which recognizes and awards Africa’s distinguished scientists under the age of 42.

Top continental and global corporations have also started investing in innovation projects in Africa. In early November, pharmaceutical and consumer good company Johnson & Johnson announced the launch of its 100,000 Africa Innovation Challenge. Besides early child development, the award focuses on providing solutions for empowering young women and improving family well-being. Five years ago, telecommunications company Etisalat also launched its innovation prize that rewards products, services or ideas that promote mobile broadband usage—a key driver of smartphone adoption in the continent. In Kenya, IBM launched its first hub in Africa in 2013, with the aim of driving and supporting homegrown innovation.

Observers say that the springing of all these funding opportunities is a testament to the talent within the continent. Speaking of the Grand Challenges project, Tom Kariuki from the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa said, “Solutions for Africa’s challenges do exist within the continent. As an African grant-making body, we are focused on tapping the best minds on the continent to develop innovative local solutions to our health and development challenges.”

Governments like Rwanda have also been proactive, adopting a formal policy (pdf) on innovation and technology, and introducing a ministry of science to strengthen scientific development.

But progress across the continent is yet to be even, with some African scientists leaving home because of lack of recognition or in search of better pastures. Egypt, a country with so many scientists, loses tens of thousands of them to universities and research centers across Europe, Japan, and the United States. One of those scientists, Ahmed Zewail, even became a naturalized American citizen and went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1999.

The World Bank has also noted that higher education systems in Africa are skewed towards disciplines such as humanities and social sciences. Research funding in Sub-Saharan Africa also focuses primarily on health and agricultural research, hindering the diversification of research efforts. But “renewed focus on these fields should not be seen as shifting attention from honoring excellence in the humanities and social sciences.Excellence is not a zero-sum game,” said Calestous Juma, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.

But to build an African future powered and inspired by science, that challenge will have to start in the classroom. Countries should develop curricula that encourage “science education for all,” a system rooted in exploration, tinkering, and application.

Eventually, innovation grants can play a role in revolutionizing scientific research, improving employment and reversing brain drain in Africa. But as funding for projects continues to trickle in, countries will need to be ready to supply the right manpower to take up these opportunities.