Africa: Investing in Africa's Science and Technology - Where Are We Now?

Although Africa has come a long way over the past decade in terms of realising the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there is still much to be done for the continent to be at par with its peers.

The continent's digital revolution can largely be driven by building the necessary skills for the short- and long-term future, and this starts in the classroom.

The recent technological influx across Africa, largely boosted by the adoption of mobile phone use, needs to be capitalized upon by the education sector.

This can be achieved through reimagining the education landscape by addressing the challenge of exclusion through increased investment, to achieve quality education in science and technology for all.

According to data by the World Economic Forum (WEF), by 2025, nearly a quarter (24.3%) of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will come from digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloud computing.

"African scientists now play a crucial role in fighting hunger and poverty and achieving sustainable economic growth for the continent. More and more African leaders have publicly committed to investing more in home-grown science, technology and education," WEF stated.

Since we cannot deny the role technology will play in the future of work, it is imperative that African leaders and policymakers ensure that there are systems at play to churn out a technically capable skilled labour force moving forward.

This means that African governments need to invest in free, high-quality education, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for all Africans.

Since nearly 90% of future jobs will strictly require technological skills, there has been a recent shift in desirable work skills to more technologically inclined skills, pushing the need for more investment in skills towards solutions that will help Africa tackle the current high youth unemployment rates.

Already, innovative young thinkers and entrepreneurs emerging from Africa are not only changing the continent but the world.

Given Africa's growing demand for STEM knowledge in a post-COVID world and education losses caused by the pandemic, support for Africa's youth in acquiring STEM education has never been more important.

Further observation even shows that aspiring scientists from Africa are still leaving the continent in droves for developed nations in search of opportunities, thereby leaving Africa drained of STEM leaders.

Africa's education system

Data by the World Economic Forum shows that in Africa, less than 2% of students, under 18, finish school with vital STEM skills.

This rate has been largely downgraded over the last two years given the COVID-19 pandemic has left 250 million children in primary and secondary schools in Africa alone out of school.

With Africa's population estimated at around 1.37 billion people, 70 % are under the age of 30 with only 2,000 colleges and universities to serve the young adult population.

the African Development Bank states that only 7% of eligible African youths enrol in tertiary institutions.

Additionally, less than 25% of African Higher education students pursue STEM-related career fields. This is despite STEM being arguably the most important field in fast-tracking the continent's socio-economic development.

The low uptake of science and technology-oriented fields of study means that Africa may continue to face a number of deficiency challenges.

Where is the money?

Under the African Union's Agenda 2063, the continent's development is set to depend critically on science, technology and innovation.

In order to achieve this, there will need to be heavy investment in infrastructure and career development, both at universities and other research organisations.

This means African science needs billions. To achieve this the continent will need to invest another US$2 billion in Research and Development each year on top of what is already being done, according to data by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

According to UNESCO, achieving integration of science and technology in Africa's education systems will be highly reliant on governments investing in their nations rather than over-reliance on international partners.

For the most part, it will be up to countries themselves to invest this money, rather than international partners - though such partners' contributions will remain essential for targeted and catalytic effects.

In 2007 African leaders committed to investing 1% of GDP in Research and development. With the continent's estimated GDP currently at US$2.7 trillion, investment in science and technology is meant to be at US$27 billion.

Going by the current rates, UNESCO says that the investment estimate is expected to grow to US$300 billion by 2050.

African leaders have also drawn up a continental blueprint for science, the African Union's Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA 2024).

They have adopted the Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union's Agenda 2063, both of which recognize the importance of investing in science, technology and innovation.

Governments are not the only potential source of funding. In the most successful science-oriented economies globally, majority of funding comes from the private sector.

The other important source of funding globally but untapped in Africa is philanthropy.

"At the beginning of 2016, there were 24 African billionaires, with assets totalling more than $100 billion. This raises the question of whether there will ever be an African equivalent of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on funding scientific research and innovation," the UNESCO report stated.

More than just the classroom

Reimagining the classroom in terms of fully incorporating science and technology may be the key to unlocking Africa's development potential but there are other aspects that will need to go hand in hand with this.

Investing in STEM skills does not only entail having an educational system that imparts relevant knowledge to students looking to join the technology sector.

Governments also need to harness and cultivate skills that professionals have already developed and nurture them further.

African nations also need to invest in broadband infrastructure, electricity, skilled facilitators and opportunities that will help curb the continent's current rate of brain drain.

There also needs to be a balancing act from business leaders between maintaining technology and infrastructure growth to increase business competitiveness while continuing with job creation drives.

This will drive up investments in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning technologies across the continent without the fear of mass job losses.

Africa's revised science and technology-based education systems also need to be able to produce both employees and entrepreneurs.

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