Recalibrating Innovation: science at the center of Africa’s development

November 2019

By Nathalie Munyampenda, Managing Director, The Next Einstein Forum*, Kigali, Rwanda

*The Next Einstein Forum is an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) that seeks to propel Africa onto the global scientific stage and make science relevant and cool for all ages. AIMS believes that the next Einstein will come from Africa.

If you stop a young girl or boy in any African city and ask them to name a famous African, the answer will vary from Sadio Mané or Mo Salah to Wizkid. The eyes of some may glaze over as they dream of starring in the next Black Panther movie or of creating a real Wakanda, (Black Panther’s fictional homeland). If you ask the same girl or boy what they want to be when they grow up, they will likely enthuse about becoming a singer, an athlete, or following in the footsteps of Aliko Dangote, Africa’s wealthiest entrepreneur, or Mark Zuckerberg. We want to be what we value. Most will not mention scientists or inventors. Why? Because science or “sciencepreneurship” is not cool. It is not a first choice career. This is what the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) is working to change.

"Like the rest of the world, we need to improve the way we learn so that we empower African children and give them opportunities to acquire the multidisciplinary skills that will allow them to be both great employees and employers,” says Nathalie Munyampenda, Managing Director of the Next Einstein Forum.(Photo: Courtesy of The Next Einstein Forum)

So why is it important that we change this narrative? Every year, around 11 million young people enter the labor market in Africa. We are graduating more people than we are creating jobs. New jobs require new industries. Africa is quickly becoming the startup continent and that is a good thing, but it is not enough. Africa needs unicorns, companies that create industries and jobs and that have a transformative impact on African economies. How does this happen?

For the last 18 months, we have been working on a Pan-African vision and roadmap for the digital economy. We believe the digital economy is the single largest driver of innovation in Africa. What we have discovered in our roundtables with public and private sector actors is that Africa lacks a collaborative innovation framework to accelerate the digital economy and the gains that can flow from it. We need to redefine what innovation is and how innovation can transform our economies and societies.

For years, African scientists and researchers have been involved in leading labs and research institutions all over the world, conducting breakthrough research in many strategic fields … We need to create an environment for such innovation to happen in Africa.

Our message is simple. If we want to benefit from the digital economy, we need to view education as a value chain that requires different interventions at each level. At NEF, we have defined five pillars to accelerate the transformative impact of the digital economy or, in other words, to speed up the process of taking ideas from the lab and scaling them for the market.

The first and second pillars relate to the need for basic and digital infrastructure. For many, it may seem that digital infrastructure (including last mile efforts) somehow removes the need to improve basic infrastructure. This is a shortsighted assumption. Africa needs to accelerate efforts to build and improve infrastructure. The ability to buy raw product online from farmers 500 kilometers away in another country may seem like the perfect solution, but a good road network and efficient custom services are still required to take possession of that product in an affordable way and to accelerate business growth.

Funding innovation

The third pillar focuses on factors that support an enabling environment or ecosystem. Without a sound policy and regulatory environment that actively brings the public and private sectors and civil society together at an early stage, we will continue to advance at a snail’s pace. How then can we speed up the process?

First, we need to explore what types of new financing instruments and partnerships are required to support the lab to market process at a Pan-African level. Until now – although this is likely to change soon – no mechanisms have been in place to finance pilot and demonstration projects in Africa in a systematic way. No comprehensive research and innovation fund exists in Africa.

Second, we need to improve awareness about the way in which intellectual property (IP) rights can add value to innovation and creativity and foster business growth. A recent study by WIPO covering the 19 African countries that make up the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) shows that IP awareness on the continent is very low. We need to turn this around.

And third, we need to establish an open innovation framework and within that, develop strong technology transfer mechanisms in our universities and colleges, to help ensure that the new knowledge they create translates into the products and services required to address local challenges. If we are to harness the full benefit of IP, we need to tackle the barriers to greater IP awareness, and we need to address the need to establish and adequately fund effective technology transfer offices in a systematic way.

With over 1900 AIMS alumni applying mathematics to agriculture, health, trade and logistics, fintech, the circular economy, energy and power, and more, we have high hopes that Africa will soon move from a start-up continent to the home of transformative innovation,

says Nathalie Munyampenda, Managing Director of the Next Einstein Forum.

The Next Einstein Forum is developing a continent-wide state of science and innovation index to explore what it takes to be successful in innovation and to use that knowledge to recalibrate how we define innovation and how we ensure it is transformative. The role that IP plays in leveraging the value of innovation is one important aspect that will be reviewed in this exercise. We will be launching the first edition of the index in March 2020 at the NEF Global Gathering in Nairobi, Kenya.

Changing the way we learn

The last two pillars of our innovation framework focus on technology and talent. Like the rest of the world, we need to improve the way we learn so that we empower African children and give them opportunities to acquire the multidisciplinary skills that will allow them to be both great employees and employers. And of course, we need to make a deliberate effort to ensure girls remain in the science and technology pipeline. This doesn’t just mean that going to university is an end goal. We need to anticipate our future needs – bearing in mind the impact that greater automation will have on our lives – and we need to invest in making sure we have the talent to create new value chains and industries.

At the tertiary level, we need to prepare students for the world of work and ensure they are employable, but we also need to make sure we keep some of our best minds in research. Without good researchers and engineers, we will always be subject to technology created for others and by others. There must be a deliberate effort and cultural shift across Africa to commit to scientific research and technology. Research must become the “it” profession.

At the post-graduate level, we need to partner with the private sector or find other innovative ways to fund research in priority areas. Developing new funding instruments is one of the continent’s most urgent needs. This is even more critical in the commercialization phase, where millions of dollars are often needed to prove a concept, roll out a product and scale up production.

The digital economy is the single largest driver of innovation in Africa

So what should be our priority areas? At NEF, we encourage governments to look at their competitive advantage, particularly now that the African Continental Free Trade Area is taking shape. We need to get better at pooling resources and focusing on key enabling technologies, particularly the immediate needs of cybersecurity, Big Data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, cloud computing and 5G. This should not be done in a vacuum. Again, national priorities and those involved in strengthening value chains must look at all aspects of the innovation framework and how it is to be funded. All the actors involved must be on the same page and need to ensure their respective contributions are geared to harnessing the social and economic benefits of these technologies.

Making science cool

Where does NEF fit in? An initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), NEF has a bold ambition – that the next Einstein will be from Africa.

This isn’t a motivational speech, it is our blueprint,

President and CEO Thierry Zomahoun likes to say.

AIMS is training Africa’s top scientific talent, graduating Africans from 43 countries with master’s degrees in mathematical sciences or machine intelligence. We also recruit brilliant young researchers from across the world, bringing them back to Africa to work on real world problems using mathematics. And we train secondary school teachers to enable them to teach mathematics in a more interesting and compelling way so we keep girls and boys in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) pipeline.

With more than 1,900 AIMS alumni applying mathematics to agriculture, health, trade and logistics, fintech, the circular economy, energy and power, and more, we have high hopes that Africa will soon move from a startup continent to the home of transformative innovation. The question of leveraging IP remains a critical challenge, one for which we must develop a clear plan that has strong public support.

An initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) has a bold ambition – that the next Einstein will be from Africa.

At NEF, we are already seeing the fruits of our public engagement activities to make science cool. Our programs, particularly our NEF Fellows Programme, which recognizes top scientists in their field and who serve as invaluable role models, and our hands-on Africa Science Week, organized in over 30 African countries, are shifting the tide by demonstrating the impact that scientists can have on the development of Africa and the rest of the world. Young people are often surprised that an industrial chemist like Professor Peter Ngene, a Nigerian based in the Netherlands, can come up with a hydrogen-based eye sensor to detect lactose intolerance, or that a geneticist like Dr. Vinet Coetzee from South Africa,  could create a non-invasive, low-cost way to detect malaria. We need to change the stories we tell around scientists, and these stories need to be grounded in fact and impact.

Africa Science Week will be held in over 35 countries this year. We will use interactive science activities as well as industry-scientist meetups, to put a human face on scientists and the important work they do in our countries. This program is led by our local STEM champions, NEF Ambassadors, young scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs, making every science week unique and contextually grounded.

We need to improve awareness about the way in which IP rights can add value to innovation and creativity and foster business growth.

Finally, to make important scientific work accessible, we run an online magazine, Scientific African Magazine, which makes research published in our journal, Scientific African, understandable for policymakers and the public. The articles are written by science journalists who are gifted in simplifying the very complex.

NEF undertakes a range of public engagement activities to make science cool among young people. These include Africa Science Week, which will be organized in more than 35 countries in 2020. (Photo: Courtesy of The Next Einstein Forum)

Working together and better

Our work in developing the innovation framework has shown us a number of things. First, it has underlined how critically important it is for actors across value chains to work together to identify barriers and opportunities and to find ways to address these in a collaborative way. Second, we learned the importance of looking at innovative financing mechanisms to address funding needs. Third, it is clear that Africa will not catch up if we do not create our own technology. We need researchers, engineers and other technical talent. Our talent requirements for today and tomorrow’s industries need to be mapped out and resources need to be secured in a systematic way to reach talent targets. For years, African scientists and researchers have been involved in leading labs and research institutions all over the world, conducting breakthrough research in many strategic fields including aerospace, cybersecurity, semiconductors, health and more. We need to create an environment for such innovation to happen in Africa. Fourth, we need a clear plan to leverage IP and promote greater use of the IP system. And fifth, we need to win over African citizens to the importance of science for development. This is critically important. We need to promote broader understanding of why large investments are needed in these areas and how each and every African can be part of the continent’s scientific and technological renaissance. This, and strong political commitment, will take Africa to new heights.

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