THE BLOG

Empowering Africa's Future Scientific Leaders

12/09/2016 15:46

As a proud African, it gives me great pleasure to see that our younger generations are harnessing science and technology for real social impact. In June, Quartz Africa named Kenyan cellular immunologist, Evelyn Gitau, one of this year's top African innovators for her efforts to develop a rapid malaria test. I've also been most impressed with Andela, a start-up founded by Nigerian entrepreneur, Iyin Aboyeji, which selects the top 1% of tech talent from the continent, trains them to be world-class developers, and places them with a tech company just six months after they begin training.

Despite these success stories, I worry that many young Africans lack the opportunity to develop critically important skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). In Sub-Saharan Africa, secondary school enrolment rates are a mere 40%, which means that there is a very small pipeline of talented students who go onto tertiary education. Of these, just one in 10 students will study the sciences.

Why is this so concerning? As many African leaders recognise, science, technology and innovation are crucial drivers of development, as they can help boost job creation, and help the continent address its most pressing challenges. If our countries are to achieve much-needed socio-economic transformation, we must invest in our human resources by building scientific and technological capacity. Considering that 11 million young Africans are expected to enter the job market each year for the next decade, our next generations will be a crucial part of these efforts. As a result, we need to take decisive action to ensure that young Africans have the high-level scientific and technical competences that they need to succeed and lead their countries.

As the biggest source of job creation and a recognised engine of growth, I believe that private sector companies can partner with African countries to create the next generation of local scientific leaders. First of all, they can partner with local universities to deliver high-quality and industry-relevant STEM curricula. Businesses could help cash-strapped faculties that equip graduates with both a deep understanding of science and technology, as well as practical workplace skills. A great example is US enterprise tech giant, SAP, which partnered with a range of educational institutions to deliver the Africa Code Week initiative, as part of its broader efforts to foster digital literacy across the continent and inspire enthusiasm for software coding among African young adults. This year's iteration will see coding workshops take place across 10 African countries and the provision of high-quality online resources and training sessions. Initiatives such as these will help ensure that young graduates have the hard and soft skills they need to thrive in a competitive job market, and expose companies to a pipeline of local tech talent.

Businesses can also help talented young scientists pursue postgraduate and postdoctoral training in African universities by providing industry-focused scholarships and placements. For example, they could contribute to the newly launched HE Ameenah Gurib-Fakim PhD Scholarship Programme delivered by the PEI Foundation in partnership with the African Academy of Sciences and with support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. What makes this programme so valuable is that it provides funding for talented African students to pursue PhDs in areas that are critical to the sustainable development of Mauritius and the African continent: energy; water and sanitation; agri-business; health; blue skies research at leading universities both on the continent and overseas.

Furthermore, the programme will be delivered with the assistance of private sector partners. The involvement of for-profit businesses will help enable our researchers to develop the practical experience that employers are looking for, and that their research closely aligns to industry needs. This balance between ensuring the creation of high-quality research that will address key development challenges, and employability of researchers is testament to the vision of HE Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, formerly a bioscientist and businesswoman before she became President of Mauritius.

As a businessman, I want to emphasise that this is beneficial to all stakeholders. By supporting this programme, companies are helping to build the hard and soft infrastructure they need to operate successfully on the continent. This programme will also help counter the brain drain that is stripping our countries of their best and brightest. We should not tie down our young minds with conditions to have to study and 'give back' to their home countries- we must seek to build the engaging, exciting scientific infrastructure that makes them want to stay and proud to work there.

Finally, if we truly want to harness the potential of our next generations, we must make every effort to increase girls' participation in the sciences. Key to this will be highlighting the achievements of leading female scientists and researchers across the continent. Given their significant brand equity, businesses are well positioned to celebrate talented women in the sciences 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. Such programmes complement the efforts of the African Union, led by the distinguished scientist H.E Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, which offers trailblazing women scientists the African Union Regional Award for Women Scientists. Recognition of our most talented female scientists will give them the means to pursue independent research projects, and show young women that they, too, can succeed in STEM fields.

Ultimately, our younger generations will be vital to achieving sustainable and inclusive development on the continent. Equipping them with high-quality and industry-relevant STEM skills will help ensure that Africa has a workforce ready to compete and lead in the 21st Century global marketplace.

The Planet Earth Institute #ScienceAfrica UnConference on 14th September will bring together 200+ delegates to look at how to empower Africa's future scientific leaders. Visit our website for more information.

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