No quick fix but change needed for Africa’s future – Fellows’ seminar by Berhanu Abegaz

“There has been a huge expansion of higher education without an injection of human and financial resources. Lack of investment means falling quality. The cumulative growth in scientific outputs is similar to that of the fastest-growing countries – we are a par with India, China and Brazil – but the actual numbers remain low. We need to ask can we solve the continental problems with the old model,” said Berhanu Abegaz, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg and former Executive Director of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS). Abegaz was presenting a seminar at STIAS on the challenges and opportunities in science, technology and higher education in Africa.

“The growth in scientific publications in Africa since 2000 has been impressive but the absolute numbers are low. Africa-based scientists are publishing good papers, but innovations, products and services have not been as forthcoming,” he continued.

Huge progress

He highlighted the major strides made on the continent.

“By the end of World War II most of Africa remained colonised. Between 1960 and 1994 29 of 54 states became independent. In 1994 majority rule in South Africa signified the total independence of Africa. There remain troubled areas but there is also much more stability in others.”

“In 1980 many African leaders were coup or military leaders. This is no longer the case – they are lawyers, economists, engineers, scientists, university professors.”

“By 1960 there were 27 universities in Africa, now there are about 2000.”

“Middle-income economies have increased to 24,” he continued, “and the continent includes six of the ten fastest-growing economies.”

There have also been important continent-wide declarations aimed at moving Africa forward. In 2007 African leaders committed to using 1% of their GDP for R&D. Agenda 2063 was published in 2013 outlining the kind of Africa we would like to have based on building a knowledge society, and we are in the first decadal strategy to achieve the aspirations of the Agenda, which are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. The African Union (AU) has also published a ‘Common Africa Position (CAP)’ based on six major pillars.

“Agenda 2063 calls for a prosperous Africa, including growth, sustainable development, good governance, democracy and rule of law,” said Abegaz.

More recently, the AU has established a High-Level Panel on Emerging Technologies, of which Abegaz is a member, which aims is to prioritise emerging technologies important for Africa with an initial focus on gene drives, the use of drones in agriculture and micro grids.

However, these important developments have been matched by a huge growth in population without concomitant growth in education and skills development.

“The population is predicted to quadruple – from 1 to 4 billion. By the end of the century almost half of the world’s children will be African. This is a concern. If the workforce is not well educated and skilled they won’t be able to support the others.”

“Student enrolment at 12% is still below the global average of 32%. South Africa is higher at 20% but this has to increase across the continent.”

Nothing comes from nothing

Abegaz highlighted the major issues including not enough qualified teaching staff, low remuneration and scarce research infrastructure. “People want to go to good institutions so it’s hard to retain good staff. Up to 20 000 educated people leave the continent annually.”

And the type of graduate is also problematic. “Due to the shifting demands of the global world many graduates are unemployable,” he said. “Universities have not kept pace with changing demand.”

“Leading countries have about 6000 R&D personnel per million inhabitants, most African countries have under 300.”

“The quality of education is falling but I see this as a global responsibility – we need to address it for the common good of the world.”

“It’s about input and output – you get nothing from nothing.”

He spoke about the development of the Pan African University which is an attempt at a different type of higher-education model. The university comprises five campuses situated at existing institutions across Africa. The host country provides infrastructure, while the AU pays salaries and facilitates partnerships.

“It offers the opportunity to experiment on a continental and, sometimes, global scale. The model involves headhunting the best staff and enhancing the mobility of staff and students. But to work, it needs the highest political endorsement.”

Other promising developments include the creation of the Scientific African journal being established by the Next Einstein Forum as well as AAS Open Research a platform being created by the African Academy of Sciences supported by Wellcome Trust which offers an author-led, open peer-review publishing process.

But Abegaz agreed that change in higher education and in the science and technology arena is not a quick fix.

“The actions taken to increase access to higher education by our political leaders in order to build a knowledge society have shown the complexities and challenges of the process and the opportunities for the future.”

“There is definitely positive change,” said Abegaz, “but more and quicker is needed. There have been good decisions but poor implementation. A new approach is needed to design higher education for sustainable development. We need to harness and nurture African talent working on African problems.”

“Current models are heavily dependent on external funding – less than 20% comes from African sources – this needs to change.”

He also believes it’s important for African scientists to be able to take discoveries through the full R&D development process. In this regard he pointed to the long history in Africa of medicinal plants – many of which have been commercialised by non-Africans.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS

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