Time for Africa to focus on science and technology

The African Academy of Sciences (AAS) was established in Trieste, Italy in 1985 with 33 African founding member-states. Despite the increase in its membership, the academy has been struggling to stand out as a prominent and dependable institution that can deliver major global scientific outputs. This was due to the massive missing link between the governments and other stakeholders. Nonetheless, the academy has been instrumental in fostering science and technology in national academies amongst member states. Its significant contribution has been in the area of funding original scientific researches in Africa, publishing and introducing findings of African science scholars, mobilizing science and technology resources in the continent and among the African diaspora. Having strengthened partnership with key alliances the Academy launched a funding platform called Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) on the 10th of September in Nairobi, Kenya, where its headquarters has been based for the past 30 years. Henok Reta of The Reporter caught up with Berhanu Abegaz (Prof.), executive director of AAS in Nairobi to discuss the potential impact of the newly-launched platform for research which was also endorsed at the 24th AU’s summit in Addis Ababa last year. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Would you briefly describe recent events which led the academy to launch the new platform?

Berhanu Abegaz (Prof): Well the academy has been functioning as a major institution for scientific researches over the past 30 years. A number of researches have been carried out by Fellows of the academy and now it has 300 Fellows who contribute to the betterment of the lives of Africans particularly in the health sector. This funding platform for research is an affiliate program of the academy and is expected to have a pivotal role in accelerating excellence in science and technology operating beside the academy.

How do you work with other organizations and academic institutes? What is the specific approach?

We have a direct approach with those national academies and institutes which is based upon the memorandums of understanding we have put in place. For example, we have a strong connection with the Ethiopian Academy of Science where distinguished fellows such as Demise Habte (Prof) and Masresha Fetene (Prof), eminent figures in academic community, are working to maintain the bond. It’s the same with other national science academies in the continent particularly with the Kenyan, the Nigerian and the Ghanaian academy of sciences. We have three core mandates to when we work along with these national sides. The first is recognizing individuals in each of these institutions to get certification and other promotional services by the academy. We also function as a think-tank to carry out researches and advocate academic suggestion for the formulations of policies and strategies. Thirdly, we are also involved in programmatic activities in six areas of the fields.

Can you give us a glimpse or an insight into these three core mandates in little more detail?

Recognizing individuals means the academy has to keep watching out for those research activities being made in all parts of the continent. We follow these researches carried out in the national science academies of respective member states thoroughly so that we can identify and evaluate them to get them published or to make them products of the continent by introducing and recognizing the individual expertise. When we say functioning as a think-tank, we know there are many issues often tabled for discussion and debate in the continent. For example, after the Fukoshima Nuclear disaster, Germany opted to close its nuclear enrichment program shortly after the scientists had tabled the idea for discussion. In Africa, we might talk about issues such as GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). We don’t decide on it but we can debate and offer recommendations for governments or any decisive agent in charge of making it a law or policy. When we talk about the programmatic activities we are dealing with those necessary living conditions and provisions such as water and sanitation, health, food security, energy and climate change. For instance, recently I read about the impact of clean energy on the nourishment of people in Africa. That report stated 500,000 people die from unclean energy emission while millions of Africans depend on firewood and charcoal to cook their foods. This figure tells you that the number of people dying from respiratory and other related diseases caused by unclean energy products is more than the number of people dying from malaria or HIV/AIDS. So, our areas of concern are multi-disciplinary to unleash the potential of the continent in curbing deaths of citizens. AAS is not a huge organization to impact the continent at this level, however, it can mobilize the think-tanks and articulately indicate the causes and effects of things around the continent. That is the mission.

How much do you rely on the newly-launched platform for funding researches? And how significant will it remain throughout the life span of the academy?

The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) is considered to be one of the most important successes that the academy has seen in its history. It will remain a crucial platform for the academy’s mission. Because we want to go further in insuring quality of researches and innovations, the platform will be a reliable source of excellence and quality. It’s a wonderful name given by the academy. As it stands, AESA Alliance is critical for similar institutions having the same mission and collaborating with us. When saying accelerate, we have to know that it is because it’s time to go fast to be able to close the gap with similar other activities going on worldwide. So, we hope this platform will help those individuals realize their dream in producing their innovations and research outputs to the larger world. So far, we have secured USD 5 million to strengthen internal capacity and to review the projects available as we monitor, evaluate and release funds for the grantees.

How does AESA function under or beside AAS and what will be its sole mandate?

AESA is an African funding platform that consultatively sets and drives the science, technology and innovation agenda to overcome health and other developmental challenges. We support initiatives in all areas of science, particularly health research relevant to Africa, and are looking forward to building partnerships with African and international partners to develop bold new initiatives. We will also manage the entire grant cycle to support these initiatives and provide support to the scientific community through a range of workshops and mentorship programs for researchers. AESA seeks to contribute to efforts to improve health research and other aspects of science, technology and innovation on the continent. The key objectives include supporting the training and retention of Africa’s best scientific talents, building good research management and financial practices, supporting research to inform policies, serving as a think-tank for shaping the continent’s science strategies and policymaking.

What about AESA’s huge financial dependency on funds coming from outside of the continent? How can it affect you? How can you raise funds internally in particular from the national GDP of the member states?

Indeed, the platform is highly dependent on outside funding which is mainly obtained from the key partners mentioned above. But it has always been a struggle to involve governments in funding the projects as a national agenda. Many African countries allocate only 0.5 percent of their GDP for research. I think some governments like Kenyan, Nigerian and South African governments are already committed to raise their budget to 2 percent at least. Moreover, African countries such as Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya are also on the move to lead the research and innovation programs of the continent. With regard to influencing the governments, we have already been in good relations with the AU and other continental blocks to create the right awareness and image of the project. More importantly, we are glad to have a president who was our distinguished fellow as a chemistry researcher. She is now one of the 7 highly educated presidents of the 33 member countries. I think her presence in the launch of AESA will also have a greater impact on the rest of the governments on the continent as her government is working hard to see more public-private engagement in developing research and scientific activities in Mauritius. Moreover, the Health Ministers of the AU have already decided to collaborate with AESA in dealing with the continents’ health issues. I think AU was not born only as a political institution. Its birth had a strong significance in relation to other aspects of the society. African research should be funded by African themselves for Africans. That’s why NEPAD sought health research and innovative strategies from the home-bread academies in framing out the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the next 15 years for Africa. And I think it is also time to focus on science and innovation for Africa.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (Prof), president of Mauritius, was a special guest on the AESA launch ceremony and she also unveiled the Ishango replica that was designed to be a logo of the platform. How vital was her presence? And how do you describe her caliber as a scientist, entrepreneur and a president?

Her presence gave us a greater opportunity to draw attention from elsewhere. She was one of the academy’s most successful scientists to publish a number of research outputs globally. Now, she is a president of her beautiful country with a brilliant leadership. I think her impact will be stronger on the upcoming generation of the continent to see more brilliant and academically excelled leaders on the continent.

How much can the new platform safeguard the enormous brain-drain in the continent?

I don’t think it will have much power in stopping brain-drain from the continent, but it will become an instrumental platform for generating more funds and creating a vibrant environment for scientists at home. I see many young scientists who are determined to stay here and want to come up with a world class research outputs, and the platform has to serve these brainy young Africans to make their dream a reality. I think it is the time to believe in African solution for African problem.

What about the less credibility attached to African-made research results and innovative ideas?

I think that is a difficult thing to change in this continent. Let alone in the aspect of science and technology, in many areas many Africans want to stick themselves to the developed world. I think the only thing we can do is ensure quality in our activities. Once we can maintain excellence and avoid mediocrity in our research activities and build a world class centre for research and innovation then it will become easy to have credibility and acceptance. More importantly, working with the African diaspora in the West will bring about a significant change as they show a positive attitude in coming back to share their expertise and sometimes to practice it in Africa.

Some countries including Ethiopia are aspiring to enter the space science realm. Does it sound feasible as the continent still faces its endemic challenges such as food insecurity and conflicts?

First of all, there should be a clear understanding that space science does not necessarily involve an esoteric field. There are aspects space science  deals with which are useful in the context of Africa. I therefore say that exclusion is wrong with regard to developing space science. But priority must be given to areas which deserve it.