Research for a better present and future Africa

Solar-energy research used technologies based on local conditions. (Rafael Marchante, Reuters)

Solar-energy research used technologies based on local conditions. (Rafael Marchante, Reuters)

In the past decade, Africa has experienced a steady growth in gross domestic product that is estimated to be in the range of 4.8% to 5.4%. In the same period, Africa’s research output has doubled from around 1% to 2% of the world’s total output.

Considering that Africa comprises 15% of the world’s population, the output is still low. Yet, the intellectual and economic growth is encouraging.

Encouraging as it seems, the questions that come to the fore are: What are Africans researching, how relevant is the data generated and is there data sharing as opposed to duplication? These questions are more relevant now than ever.
This is based on the expectation that, over the years, Africans have gained the skills and competencies required to exploit our natural resources.

Research for posterity
The elephant in the room is obviously political leadership. Leaving that for the politicians, though, academics too have their role to play. Research for posterity is that which addresses the present and the future needs of a society.

This is the kind of research that has an impact on a society, adds value to life and make it better for the children of our children.

This kind of research can be measured by the number of citations per paper. This number is greatly dependent on what I would call “intellectual patriotism”. In this context Switzerland has the world’s highest score of 15.7, followed by the United States with 15.

Accept our own
To achieve such high scores, the research must first be relevant and of a quality that is citable by its local peers. There is a need for us to accept our own. At the core of this is the concept that Africa must generate its own data relevant to its circumstances.

By a way of example, solar energy is abundant in Africa, and is thus a competitive advantage that Africa must secure as much as those in similar tropical regions of the world do. There are many systems that are not working properly in Africa simply because of the mismatch between technologies, on the one hand, and raw-materials characteristics and local conditions, on the other. Among such technologies are wind energy and biogas.

In many African countries, including South Africa, it has been reported that many anaerobic wastewater treatment plants are not working efficiently.

The reasons for this range from basic maintenance problems to changes in operating conditions. The problems include changes in effluent volumes and characteristics.

Competitive advantage
Biogas technology is one area where Africa has a competitive advantage in terms of favourable climatic conditions and available raw materials. A successful application of this technology requires site-specific or locally generated data to guide energy-policy decisions with regard to the quality and cost of the product from a given raw material.

Moreover, there is an emerging trend to integrate conventional technologies such as anaerobic digestion with advanced oxidation processes such as solar photo-degradation to generate site- or region-specific data for a given system.

It is unfortunate that Africa is largely considered as a consuming continent. This is understandable, given the level of technological development in the continent, and the continent may have to consume imported products for some time to come.

But the things that we cannot afford to consume are ideas. We must take, use and generate ideas grounded on the African imperatives.

It is this kind of thinking that has given rise to the Centre for Renewable Energy and Water (Crew) at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT). Deriving its impetus from the name, this is an interdisciplinary centre at VUT made up of a team of scientists and engineers.

The pillar departments that support Crew are chemical engineering, civil engineering and bioscience. The centre is an offshoot of the bioenergy research group in VUT’s department of chemical engineering and was officially launched in November 2013.

Waste benefication
The central focus of the centre is the water-energy-food nexus and the approach is waste beneficiation. In this approach, different waste streams are used to produce biogas in anaerobic digesters.

The biogas produced can be used directly as fuel or to produce other forms of energy, including electricity. The treated water from the anaerobic digesters can be used for irrigation and the solid waste can be used as manure for food production.

But the work does not end there, given that the water that is so treated may still contain pathogens and/or recalcitrant pollutants.

To remove these pollutants, low-cost advanced oxidation processes such as solar photodegradation are employed as a post- or pre-treatment method. Based on this principle, Crew has created multilayer consortia from the institutional level through national and continental levels all the way to the international level. Lately, members of the team have been receiving invitations to deliver keynote addresses at both national and international conferences. Last year the centre also received the Water Research Commission national research award for redress and transformation.

This shows the impact that this kind of approach has on society and its potential to change the landscape of research in Africa. The approach is basically anchored by the principle of collaborative research, focusing on developing state-of-the-art technologies based on local conditions.

Ochieng Aoyi is professor of ­chemical engineering and director of the Centre for Renewable Energy and Water at Vaal University of Technology

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