African governments must invest in science for future growth




‘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

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Esther Ngumbi
Guest Author

Related stories

Africa study finds three million new genetic variations

The findings have wide relevance, from learning more about African history and migration to specific variants of people’s health

Extract from ‘The Journey: New Positions in African Photography’ — an introduction

A new book examines the great flourishing of photography across the African continent

Our world needs empathetic intervention — not heroes

The pandemic has reminded us of interconnectedness and that we need to see the world from various perspectives, especially in case studies

The Trump era is over. But the fight for democracy is just getting started

A respected and robust United States — with all of our flaws, mistakes and missteps — can be good for the defence of democracy, not least in Africa

Ethiopia is about to cross the point of no return

As the conflict between the national government and Tigray escalates, the window for intervention is closing fast

The European companies that armed the Ivorian civil war

AN OCCRP investigation reveals that Gunvor and Semlex brokered weapons-for-oil deals in early 2011 when Côte d’Ivoire was in crisis, despite a UN arms embargo

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine

Limpopo big-game farmer accused of constant harassment

A family’s struggle against alleged intimidation and failure to act by the authorities mirrors the daily challenges farm dwellers face

Did Botswana execute ‘poachers’ ?

The Botswana Defence Force’s anti-poaching unit has long been accused of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Over 20 years the unit has killed 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…