THE BLOG

Africa's Scientific Independence: No More Business as Usual

20/07/2015 12:29 BST | Updated 18/07/2016 10:59 BST

As a proud African, it gives me enormous pride to witness our beloved continent's economic transformation. The IMF forecasts that African economies will grow by 4.17% through 2015, well above the global average of 3.45%. What's more, Africa is home to seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world including Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Nigeria, the continent's largest economy.

However, despite Africa's impressive economic growth, there remains a damaging divide between business and scientific communities. Technical knowledge is not keeping pace with economic growth and businesses often bemoan the lack of local candidates with scientific and technological competences. In fact, over 42% of executives across the continent indicated that the lack of talent and the cost of keeping skilled employees weigh heavily on the near-term view of the African business operations.

This problem also extends to academia. According to a 2014 World Bank report, scientific output has nearly doubled in sub-Saharan Africa in the last decade, but this increase has largely been attributed to international collaborators. Furthermore, although scientific research output has grown, there has not been the same increase in registered innovation. Sadly, no African country featured in the top 20 countries for patent applications in 2013, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). These trends are hugely concerning. If we are to ensure that the continent remains an attractive place to do business and that sustainable development is a reality for all, we must redouble efforts to increase African countries' scientific and technical output.

As the biggest source of job creation and a recognised engine of growth, private sector companies can and should spur scientific and technological advancement for the continent. First of all, they can help equip Africa's young and ambitious population with scientific and technical skills. For example, they can help fill the much documented skills gap by partnering with local universities to improve the quality of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) curricula. Businesses could help cash-strapped faculties design courses that equip graduates with both a deep understanding of science and technology, as well as practical workplace skills.

For instance, Phillips unveiled a state-of-the-art medical training simulation lab on the University of Johannesburg's campus in recognition of the lack of trained and skilled healthcare professionals on the continent. As a result, students will gain exposure to current medical technologies and prepare them to succeed in a high- pressure work environment. This can help companies to reduce the costs of investing in workforce training, as well as assist universities to market themselves as destinations for ambitious students.

Businesses should also provide talented young scientists with financial assistance so that they can undertake postgraduate and postdoctoral training in African universities, by increasing industry focused scholarships and placements. Major global players including IBM are doing so with its IBM-Research labs in Kenya, which has established a new resident scientist program for schools in Kenya and other African countries. The applicants are leading scientists and researchers from pre and post-doctoral backgrounds, as well as from academia, government, or industry, and work with IBM researchers in the physical lab environment. Such initiatives allow private companies to build a pipeline of skilled local talent and encourage our best scientists to stay on the continent.

In a recent article for the New African, Harvard University professor, Calestous Juma, argued for the importance of entrepreneurship on the continent, and suggested that African universities could be used as incubators for new companies. While creating this role for higher education institutions may require reforms to redefine their missions, businesses could harness their expertise and financial resources to help universities create incubators for new science and tech companies. A great example is the Advanced Technology Development Center at Georgia Institute of Technology, which Forbes named one of 12 business incubators changing the world for launching more than 120 tech companies that have raised more than $US1billion in outside financing. Its 2015 sponsors include Amazon Web Services and Thompson Technologies, which are donating their time, money and resources to the Center. These investments can help foster a new generation of talented young entrepreneurs who can create solutions to Africa's greatest development challenges, and expose private sector companies to top talent.

Finally, if we are truly committed to spurring scientific and technological advancement on the continent, we must ensure that women are better represented in science. With significant financial resources and strong brand equity at their disposal, businesses are well positioned to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. They can also recognise talented women scientists for their achievements. For example, seventeen years ago, L'Oréal and UNESCO founded the For Women in Science programme to promote the importance of ensuring greater participation of women in science. Every year, they acknowledge five brilliant young female researchers in Africa and the Arab States, Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and North America for their contributions to physical science. The prizes they receive will give them the means to pursue their most cherished research projects, thus removing some of the barriers and obstacles that prevent many women from pursuing a career in science.

It is now time that more of the businesses that have reaped the rewards of Africa's continent for decades seriously begin investing in its scientific and technological development. It is this scientific and technological excellence that will equip the workforces of the future in Africa and enable us to compete and lead with confidence in the globalised 21st century marketplace.

The Planet Earth Institute #ScienceAfrica UnConference on 21st July will bring together 200+ delegates to look at how business can do more for Africa's scientific development.