Kenya: Time's Ripe to Trust Our Own Scientists - Ongaji


As the world continues to play catch up with coronavirus pandemic, which has unleashed terror around the globe, Africa has not been spared, as the disease continues to slowly crawl into the continent.

Statistics have suggested that compared to other parts of the world, that we have been lucky at least for the moment, not to have come face to face with the full terror unleashed by the pandemic.

But as we continue to ride on this luck, which we have no idea how long it will last, the continent has not been left with many choices other than be at the mercy of the developed world.

Researchers from different parts of the world, be it from Australia, The UK, China or America, keep updating the world. Be it on the biological structure of the virus, or maybe a testing kit that takes shorter time to get results, we on the other hand have been relying on rumours and fake news from various platforms online. This is not only to feed our curiosity, but also to sway our minds from a possible horror story that likely awaits ahead.

I can't help but notice every time my friends on social media become optimistic, whenever there is some sort of good news in the fight against the virus, courtesy of foreign scientists.


What's disheartening is that some of our experts have been reduced to conveyor belts of dissemination of latest research information from their foreign colleagues; some details that we can easily access online.

It is as if no form of scientific research structure exists in this part of the world. It is as though we are completely out of touch with the situation. In other words, we have been reduced to spectators.

The saddening fact is that this is not first time that as a continent we are just mere spectators in the midst of such an outbreak.

Such laxity or should we call it ignorance may be best explained by how much African governments have been investing in research.

The 2017 Unesco Institute for Statistics survey released in June 2019 showed Israel and South Korea as the world's leading spenders on research and development (R&D), as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). The two countries spent 4.6% of GDP on R&D, compared with the 2.4% average of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in that year.

That's just but one example. A good number of research investment lists are dominated by Western and East Asian countries, while no African country appears even in the top 20 of the pack. We are talking about the second most populous continent.

Here in Kenya, out of the Sh3.02 trillion 2019-2020 budget, the government allocated Sh1.0 billion to modernise facilities in Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI).

As for the many talented heads in Africa; scientists who shine even at the international level, when they come back home, they are either frustrated or do not find a conducive working environment.

Case in point is Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe, a microbiologist who after graduating with a Ph.D. in Belgium, instead of enjoying the comfort of Europe, he decided to go back to his home country of Democratic Republic of Congo to try and at least bring sanity to the medical situation there.

But what did he find when he went back? A less than ideal working environment, which was characterized with insecurity and lack of working apparatus. However, that did not discourage him from trying to save his people, having been the first scientist to discover the hemorrhagic fever, Ebola, and also pioneered the treatment of the same.

There are many true sons and daughters of Africa who despite their hardships, have shown the will to change the medical and research situation in the continent, only to be frustrated by the system, and finally fade away.

We know this is not a time for blame games, but it should be a wakeup call for Kenya and Africa; a continent that for years has depended on other regions for many things, among them, research solutions.

Coming back to coronavirus, there have been various theories about the origin of the pandemic. Whether it originated from some animal that someone ate, or whether it is a biological warfare weapon, one thing for sure is that when everything calms down, there will be a shakeup in the technological and research world order.

And when this time comes, we as Africans should ask ourselves whether we shall remain as spectators, or this time round we shall have a say on the global stage, alongside leading players in the global scientific research.

The author is a correspondent at Nation Media Group.

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