Advancing Science in Africa

Africa, home to the world’s oldest human fossils, now accounts for less than one percent of the globe’s scientific research between 2003 and 2013, as per a report by the World Bank and Elsevier. Africa produces only 1.1% of global scientific knowledge according to the World Economic Forum.

Science is particularly important when it comes to Africa, as many of the pressing issues it faces—low agricultural productivity, famine, disease, the mismanagement of natural resources—can be solved through the implementation of science and technology. Africa has a ratio of 79 scientists per million inhabitants, whereas Brazil and the US have ratios of 656 and 4500 per million, respectively. This lack of scientific advancement is attributable to Africa and the international community’s lack of investment in research infrastructure, training, and programs within the continent.

Recently, Africa has launched various initiatives to encourage women and men alike into STEM fields, and to promote higher education. In March, Rwanda hosted a gathering of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF), a joint initiative of AIMS (African Institute for Mathematical Sciences) and Elsevier, a science and health publisher based out of New York. This marked the largest general scientific gathering ever held in Africa, with nearly 1,600 people in attendance. It was the second meeting of the forum and is in the process of becoming a biennial event.

NEF launches Scientific African (Scientific African Twitter).

The Forum saw the launch of Africa’s first world-class online publication, Scientific African, dedicated solely to African science and technology. Scientific African will cover multidisciplinary topics, from research in biology and health to physics and astronomy. Such a publication is essential, as African scientists are automatically at a disadvantage by being in Africa.

For their research to be globally accepted, it must be published in a peer-reviewed journal, oftentimes one outside of Africa, and such schematics are difficult to accomplish.

AIMS CEO and NEF founder Thierry Zomahoun reaffirmed the importance of the Forum’s mission, stating, it “ is central to the Next Einstein Forum’s vision of propelling Africa onto the global scientific stage.”

The Forum covered a wide breadth of topics over the course of its three days. Dr Sayed Azam-Ali, spoke of his development of biotechnological and genetic improvement of underutilized crops, along with a database of crops and agricultural processes of remote farmers.

He noted that “there are four crops that Africa needs to survive in the future and unfortunately those plants are not found on the continent. What we have done is developed the first database of underutilized crops…We can turn this pyramid around and put these indigenous crops back on top of the pyramid.”

This ties into climate change, which was also discussed at the forum. Director of the World Bank for Food and Agriculture Dr Simeon Ehui warned that “yield decline of cereal crops in Africa could reach about 27 percent to as much as 50 percent due to climate change.”

Other topics discussed included Africa’s health sector and the obstacles it faces—with the unveiling of a digital microscope that connects to a smartphone and detects breast and cervical cancer remotely, the creation of smart and sustainable cities—implementing game theory to create such cities, and clean energy—with another invention that utilizes maize cobs to generate electricity.

Wrapping up #NEFScienceWeek in Zambia with a science and cocktail event to recognizing women in science. (Scientific African, Twitter).

NEF campaign has been ongoing in various African countries. Last week saw NEF’s Science Week in Zambia, this week they’re hosting science week in Sudan. Other countries to follow include Angola, Benin, Uganda, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, and Malawi.

AIMS and NEF are not alone in their work. Carnegie Mellon University opened a campus in Rwanda in 2011. Ms. Crystal Rugege, director of strategy and operations, points out how such a university is essential to African university development, as universities in the continent rarely encourage professors to do research. Africa severely lacks research, thus putting the two together would help enormously and encourage students into research opportunities.

AESA, the Alliance for Excellence in Science in Africa, is furthering scientific development in Africa. By partnering with the Welcomme Trust, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the UK Dept for international development, they are working towards funding programs for African research, with active grants totaling over $70 million USD. AESA’s vision is to develop science across Africa, and in doing so, a knowledge-based economy, as a lack of science and technology severely detrimentally affects the economy as well.

Due to logistical difficulties and the lack of infrastructure and resources, those individuals who do pursue science and engineering in Africa go to study in non-African universities. Few ever return, having found work outside of Africa.  One of the few who did return is Abdoulaye Djimdé. After earning a PHD in malaria genetics at the University of Maryland he returned to his home in Mali.

Professor Abdoulaye Djimde, University of Science, Techniques and Technologies of Bamako, Mali

During his time in the US he authored cutting-edge research identifying the first genetic markers for chloroquine-resistant malaria, as well as a procedure to track drug resistant malaria in the field. His move back to Africa was mainly due to his validated theory that malaria research is best suited to sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria is a major issue and the need for treatment and prevention is greatest. To circumvent Africa’s disadvantaged resources, Djimde has partnered with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, allowing him to sequence malaria parasite DNA by sending samples and data to Britain.

Despite the ground-breaking work of Djimde, Africa needs to be able to better retain African talent. African institutions of international standing can enable those to go to universities that suit their aptitudes without the expenses and uprooting of studying abroad, reducing the proportion of those who make their lives and careers abroad.