11/04/2016 09:11 BST | Updated 09/04/2017 06:12 BST

Supporting the Development of Research Leaders in Africa

I am delighted that science is increasingly recognised as a key driver of development in Africa. High-profile conferences such as February's Next Einstein Forum in Senegal have turned the spotlight onto some of the continent's best young scientists and technologists. International leaders such as the distinguished scientist, HE Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission, are also calling for greater efforts to equip the next generation with high-quality scientific and technical skills. What's more, countries such as Mauritius deserve praise for their efforts to create an enabling environment for local scientists.

This progress is encouraging, but we must do more to build the domestic skills base that Africa needs to address its own development challenges. As President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim pointed out in a recent interview, 'If we had the testing ability and the basic education around the sciences -- hygiene for example -- we probably, and hopefully, would not have had the human disaster that we saw during the Ebola crisis.' Beyond the health sciences, for example, I would love to see local scientists creating innovations to enhance access to clean and sustainable energy, which can improve our citizens' livelihoods. We must also balance 'quick scientific gains' with investment in basic sciences research to broaden the range of scientific discoveries, and aid long-term development.

At the same time, there is a real need to ensure the industrial relevance of scientific research as well as the scientists who conduct it. A 20-year trend of under-investment in higher education and science in Africa has left many academics cut adrift from the needs of industry. Too often, they can be found pursuing their own research, and more aligned with the wishes of international funding bodies than local industry. At the same time, businesses often bemoan the lack of high-quality local personnel with practical scientific and technical 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 state of affairs prompted an important Memorandum of Understanding between the PEI and the African Academy of Sciences, a bastion of scientific excellence on the continent. Central to the MoU is a PhD grant programme that supports African students to pursue research in the areas of water, energy, agribusiness and basic sciences. In this way, we will be building the capacity that the continent needs to tackle current and anticipate future development priorities.

I am especially proud that this 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. 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 on the continent. This programme will also help counter the brain drain that is stripping our countries of their best and brightest.

Increased investment in scientific research and capacity in Africa is vital if we are to ensure that sustainable development is a reality for all. I call on African governments, for-profit businesses, universities and other stakeholders to support the PEI and the AAS in our important endeavour.