Science and technology could drive the continent's future development, but creating the right environments and keeping Africa's youngest and brightest will be key.
Last month, the World Bank and the Rwandan government co-hosted a forum in Kigali with the ambitious theme of 'Accelerating Africa's Aspirations'. Bringing together ministers of education and higher education as well as academics and representatives from the private sector, the event was aimed at highlighting the role that science, technology and innovation could play in increasing Africa's productivity and growth.
"The importance of science, technology, research and innovation cannot be overstated," said President Paul Kagame, "they are critical enablers which shape the socio-economic transformation of nations. In sub-Saharan Africa they can drastically improve the living standards. But to unlock this potential, Africa must have well-trained science and technology professionals."
Similarly, Makhtar Diop, the World Bank's Vice-President for Africa, emphasised the "need to produce more graduates who can drive private sector competitiveness, find solutions to pressing development problems, contribute to faster and more inclusive growth in our African economies, and allow Africa to take its rightful place in the fully integrated global economy."
In recent years, African countries have recorded some of the highest economic growth figures in the world, but in many instances, these impressive performances have been driven largely by resource extraction. GDPs have risen, but often the growth has not been inclusive, jobs have not been created in sufficient numbers and non-resource sectors have struggled.
The March forum was partly an attempt to address this problem and encourage governments to train their young people with the right knowledge and skills to take advantage of new and more job-creating economic opportunities. "No country can prosper in the long run without paying attention to human capital," said Tawhid Nawaz, the World Bank's Director for Human Development in Africa.
"Fail quickly and learn quickly"
In the forum, there was a strong emphasis on education, and many believe African universities could be key to lifting millions out of poverty by training engineers, researchers and inventors who can drive economic growth in the future. However, there are many stumbling blocks that need to be overcome such as poor infrastructure, inadequate funding, a shortage of qualified academic staff, and poor salaries that contribute to frequent strikes.
These and other challenges currently contribute to many of the continent's brightest graduates emigrating to more developed parts of the world, hankering after opportunities granted by more appealing research facilities.
According to Akaliza Gara, a Rwandan tech entrepreneur and a youth member of Microsoft's 4Afrika advisory council, innovative African graduates have developed many new products in recent years, but prefer to work in Western countries where there is more support and more room for failure. "Loans are cheaper," she says, "there is financial support for the unemployed, and failing in a business venture is more culturally acceptable."
To get the most from its innovators therefore, African countries need to cultivate similar settings. "In order to inspire even more African graduates to innovate, we need to create spaces where failure is obviously not encouraged, but is safe," Nawaz said at the forum. "Spaces like kLab [an open space for tech innovation and entrepreneurship in Rwanda], where ideas can grow and be nurtured, where you can make mistakes and learn from them."
Clarisse Iribagiza, a globally-recognised Rwandan innovator and founder of the mobile app company HeHe Limited, also emphasises trial and error as one of the most important characteristics for successful tech businesses. "We need to experiment more and learn by doing," she says. "Fail quickly and learn quickly. People are too afraid to try new things."
"We need a more hands on approach in teaching STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths]," she adds, "practice instead of focusing on theory."
Better teaching of STEM in sub-Saharan Africa is also crucial to developing its technological potential. In October 2007, another forum in Kigali saw the launch of Connect Africa, a partnership aimed at bridging technological infrastructure gaps across the continent and supporting ICT projects. The summit led to Rwanda partnering with Carnegie Mellon University, a leading American technology and engineering institution, which opened a Centre of Excellence and master's course in Rwanda.
However, apart from some small successes such as these, there have been few effective investments in this sphere. For example, according to last month's forum, the proportion of sub-Saharan African students in STEM disciplines is still very low at around just 20-25%. Even in Rwanda, data from 2010 showed 25% of research being done in higher learning institutions was in the field of science and just 3% was in technology. Meanwhile, a brief released recently by the World Bank found that East African researchers in 2012 contributed just 0.2% of the world's output of STEM-related research.
"There is a lot to be done in terms of building capacity," says Bruce H. Krogh, director of Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda. "One challenge within Rwanda is strengthening the education all the way from the very beginning through to university so that students are really prepared for the global marketplace."
"In ICT you are really competing with the world," he adds, "with somebody in Hong Kong, Singapore, in Silicon Valley... I mean the Internet connects everybody."
Help in being relevant and competitive is something that Guillaine Neza, a budding mobile app developer and a graduate of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, thinks training programmes need to be take into account as well as the scientific principles themselves. "Many graduates don't apply the skills they acquired because they don't feel confident in their field to match that with what's on the market," she says. "Some graduates don't even get enough skills that expose them to their professional development or help them align what they have with market trends."
Starting in July, Rwanda will host another event, this time led by the East African Community Science and Technology Commission, which is meant to promote and co-ordinate the development and use of science and technology in member-states.
According to Diop meanwhile, the World Bank is already working to support science and technology in Nigeria, Tanzania and Senegal, and will soon present an Africa Centres of Excellence Project bringing together universities across the continent.
There seems to be initiative and political will amongst many of the continent's policymakers in attempting to put an emphasis on science and technology going forwards, but for Africa's current and future tech innovators, the crucial thing is that this is turned into real action.
For further reading around the subject see:
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