columnBy Aubrey Musuumba
AFRICA is one of the world's richest regions in terms of natural resources, yet the continent has derived little profit from the exploitation of its resources.
The continent is endowed with vast mineral wealth, rivers, lakes and oceans and not least of all great agricultural potential.
Yet, the resources are of little or no value unless they are exploited, harnessed and, most importantly, processed into finished, pulpable and, therefore, consumable products.
And this is where science and technology comes in, which is the tool for value addition to the raw materials into finished products.
Sadly, science and technology has been at the tail-end of institutional, private and public agenda on the African continent, resulting in stagnation in economic advancement in most African countries. The sector has largely been confined to laboratories and has had neither a link nor relevance to national development.
Thankfully, this perception is now being changed and reversed to recognise and accord science and technology its rightful role in socio-economic development.
Science and Technology Minister Brian Chituwo says science, technology and innovation are a cornerstone to socio-economic development. He points out that countries that have made inroads in development have done so through the appreciation and utilisation of science and technology.
The minister adds that science and technology hold the key to enhancing a myriad of sectors such as health, education and the wider spectrum of socio-economic development.
In this regard, Dr Chituwo notes, there is need to popularise science and technology by ensuring that it is taken seriously in schools and at tertiary level, and invest financially and otherwise in science and technology.
He calls for capacity building in infrastructure, human capital and the retention of local scientists. The minister says these should be attended to towards the launch of the year 2008 as a year of 'Science and Technology'.
Dr Chitowu says Zambia has made notable headway in elevating science and technology to the level where it should be. This can be seen in the establishment of the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research which has since been refurbished and re-equipped to play a forceful role in the development of science and technology in the country.
Dr Chituwo says considerable progress has so far been made in the efforts to harness science and technology. He cites the development of bio-fuel as a viable source of energy and the purification of water using the Mulinga tree as some of the remarkable discoveries that have been achieved through science and technology.
He further notes that at Kitwe Plant Development Centre, Zambia has developed three varieties of crops, which include virus-free banana, potato and virus-free cassava which have been piloted in Luapula Province. He says the country is now at a stage were these discoveries have to be commercialised.
The minister is, however, cognisant of the fact the above inroads notwithstanding, Zambia still has a long way to develop science and technology to a level where it will become the engine of all developmental programmes and projects.
He stresses that the nursery of science lies in basic and secondary schools, hence the move by the Ministry of Education to re-equip school laboratories in a bid to bring up young people with a culture of appreciating science.
Dr Chituwo says in the area of technology, Government is equipping high schools with computers, adding that the Ministry of Science and Technology has embarked on equipping trades schools with computers so that every graduate is computer literate.
He says Zambia has also been collaborating with the Council of Scientific Research in South Africa where research on herbal medicine is vigorously being pursued to investigate their efficacy particularly in relation to HIV/AIDS.
Dr Chtuwo says a lot of work is being undertaken in science and technology but, unfortunately, such works have not been popularised or made known to the public.
He says, however, that the starting point in appreciation and utilisation of science and technology is 'political will'.
Dr Chituwo says it is against this background that the recent 8th ordinary session of the Assembly of the African Union held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, chose 'Science, Technology and Scientific Research, and Climate Change' as the theme for its focus and deliberations.
This goes to show the importance of political will in harnessing and developing science and technology for sustainable social and economic development on the African continent.
The move by African leaders to convene a summit to specifically focus on science and technology is a practical measure to prioritise science and technology for the greater good of nations and the continent.
Zambia's participation at the summit was headed by President Levy Mwanawasa, accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Mundia Sikatana and Dr Chituwo.
Also included in the President's delegation was State House Deputy Minister Richard Taima and other diplomatic technocrats.
President Mwanawasa and his entourage were among 40 other heads of State and Government who were party to efforts aimed at looking at how science and technology and innovation could contribute towards Africa's socio-economic development.
Speaking to journalists at the end of the two-day summit, Mr Mwanwasa said the summit presented the African Union with an opportunity to focus on the role that science and technology and innovation could play in overcoming the socio-economic challenges faced by the populace on the African continent.
President Mwanawasa said key issues for consideration were Africa 's capacity to use science and technology for human capacity building.
He said as leaders, they were asked to agree that at least one per cent of countries' Gross Domestic Product (GDP) should go to promote science and technology, research and development and to develop innovative strategies for economic growth.
President Mwanawasa said, however, that more resourses needed to be mobilised to effectively harness and employ science and technology in developmental endeavours.
Mr Mwanawasa further called for South-to-South co-operation in science, technology and innovation, and to enhance the role of such cooperation in international partnerships.
Prompted by thought-provoking deliberations of the Addis Ababa summit, SADC member countries are now looking at indigenous knowledge and technology in recognition that there is need to record the wealth of information which could be lost if not recorded.
Zambia has since completed the documentation of indigenous knowledge and technology in Northern Province covering areas of health, agriculture, education and other myths and perceptions and a frame would be made to ensure that indigenous knowledge is not lost by patenting such knowledge.
Zambia is also party to efforts to form a Pan-African Institute of Intellectual Right body to protect the indigenous knowledge.
The sprit of unity of purpose and commitment that reigned at the just-ended summit enabled AU member countries, Zambia included, walking away with a wealth of knowledge and practical ways of how science and technology could be effectively used as a tool for development. AU member states also established linkages with other countries of the continent based on regional economic integration and interaction.
The challenge now remains with the respective governments on the continent and relevant ministries and departments, including the private sector, to rise to the occasion and turn the commitments made at the AU summit into tangible results in the development of science and technology.
The low funding for science and technology in Africa, at less than one per cent of GDP, is an issue that requires urgent attention as rightly observed by President Mwanawasa.
Science is not a luxury but a necessity that requires a supportive political and cultural environment. Investing in science and technology, therefore, is investing in development. -ZANIS