‘It’s time for the African continent to be serious about investing in research, development and innovation,” International Relations and Co-operation Minister Naledi Pandor noted in her speech at the 2019 South Africa Investment conference. She observed that Africa is far from realising the potential that science and innovation hold for development, and that a way to rectify this is for governments to invest in research.
I agree. Challenges such as drought, climate change, infectious diseases, poverty, water shortages and food insecurity that continue to derail Africa’s ability to achieve sustainable development can benefit from advances in scientific research. But there is a long way to go. The African continent contributes less than 1% of the world’s research outputs. In addition, a 2019 World Intellectual Property report on patent filings found many African countries ranked poorly in this category.
There are several reasons why Africa still lags behind in research outputs but a big one is a lack of funding. According to a 2016 research survey by Seeding Labs, scientists working in African countries often lack access to infrastructure and cutting-edge science equipment to allow them to conduct research geared towards addressing many of the challenges the continent faces. There is also a lack of funding mechanisms to create viable ways to disseminate their research.
To realise the potential of science and innovation, Africa must recommit to ensuring that scientists in African universities and research institutions have access to well-equipped laboratories to make science happen. Organisations such as Seeding Labs that are working to facilitate the acquisition of instruments by scientists at African institutions are commendable. But there is still room for many more creative initiatives.
Importantly, African governments must have a budget for science to fund research in multiple disciplines, including agriculture. A look at the data shows that countries in sub-Saharan Africa — with the exception of South Africa, Kenya and Senegal — spend only 0.4% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research.
In addition, with the exception of South Africa, investments and budget allocations by African governments to agricultural research and development and extension stand at less than 10% of agricultural GDP. This needs to change, and in some countries it is starting to.
In 2018, with the support of African Development Bank, Rwanda launched its National Research and Innovation Fund. Countries such as Kenya and Ghana recommitted to dedicate 2% and 1% of their countries’ GDP to research, respectively. This trend must continue — and grow.
But Africa cannot do it alone. Wealthy countries should continue to support African countries as they grow their science funding capabilities, as well as build laboratories and other infrastructure to allow trained scientists to practise science on the African continent. When scientists work together, we benefit from collaboration: we publish together and exchange ideas.
Alternatively, African scientists can collaborate with researchers who are working in countries that have larger science spending budgets, such as the United States and European countries. But as they collaborate, researchers must ensure that the African contributors are included as first or senior authors in resulting research papers or reports. A recent study showed that African researchers are less recognised for their contributions in global health research when their collaborators are from developed countries such as the US and Canada.
Finally, African countries need to remunerate scientists and value the work they do. The brain drain continues to hurt African countries and African science, partly, because many scientists are not well paid. As a result, many decide to go to other countries that value their skills and remunerate them well.
I can relate. I am a scientist from Africa, working in the US. One way to value African scientists and encourage them to stay is to celebrate them and continue to illuminate their research and the effect it has on communities in Africa and beyond.
When African countries strengthen and grow their research and innovation capabilities, the African continent, its citizens and our interconnected world all stand to benefit.
Dr Esther Ngumbi is a postdoctoral researcher in the entomology department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a fellow at the World Policy Institute