Africa needs to become a science and innovation leader, to create youth jobs and prepare for challenges such as climate change
Africa has hundreds of vibrant innovation hubs and hundreds of millions of youth whose potential is straining to be unleashed. All that remains is to provide the enabling environment for them to flourish and to change the situation where Africa has high demand for development but low supply of science, technology and innovation (STI).
This imbalance is dramatic when the continent is dealing with COVID-19, desert locusts, hurricanes, floods and other climate-change threats to ecosystems and biodiversity. Ageing leaders must also handle a youth bulge that promises either positive change or social and political instability.
Africa clearly needs to accelerate its transition to the innovation-led, knowledge-based, job-creating green economy envisaged in the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063. Doing so requires new levels of internal political will and coherent external support, such as from the European Union’s Green Deal initiative.
Africa has long recognized the importance of STI to sustainable development – it set the target of allocating 1% of gross domestic product to scientific and technological development as far back as 1980.
Africa is also keenly aware of the need to prepare the youth for the future automated world of work – Agenda 2063 aims for 70% of high-school graduates entering tertiary education, and 70% of them graduating in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
This ambition springs from structural reality – the prevalence of raw material exports and low value-added manufacturing has not favoured local research and development (R&D).
There is very low uptake of STEM at secondary and tertiary levels and fewer than 100 researchers per million inhabitants in most African countries – about 12 times less than the world average. Average gross expenditure on R&D is about 0.5% of GDP (with much external funding) against a world average of 2.2%.
African countries recorded 1,330 patent registrations in 2017 compared with 116,359 in Europe and 592,508 in Asia. At current trends, Africa will remain a big importer and weak producer and user of STI.
Africa needs to buck the trends and accelerate implementation of the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA 2024), the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025 (CESA 16-25) and the Continental Strategy for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET).
These strategies promote rising investment in the youth and in STI for faster progress in key sectors including agriculture, energy, and infrastructure. They will help retain a critical mass of high-calibre scientists and researchers. They also facilitate public and private sector synergies that generate innovation for development.
Africa’s STI needs range from biotechnologies (including genetic engineering, bioinformatics, and bioprocess engineering) and digital technologies (including artificial intelligence, big data analytics) with multiplier effects for clean and green transitions and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
These include development of drugs (SDG 3 on health); efficient surveillance and biocontrol of desert locusts and other pests (SDG 2 on zero hunger); efficient management (bio-remediation) of chemical pollution (such as oil spills) and ocean acidification that threaten marine ecosystems (SDG 14 on life below water); and greater carbon capture from buildings, agriculture and production systems, along with production of drought-resistant seeds and animals (SDG 13 on climate action).
Getting there requires supportive infrastructure such as broadband, reliable water and electricity, good roads, modern laboratories, and tax incentives for private sector innovation. Promising research also needs further support to produce innovations that deliver returns on investment.
EU Green Deal support can cover some R&D costs, enabling African firms to develop and own digital and green technologies, thereby escaping the trap of acting as simple channels into African markets.
The continental strategies promoting public and private sector synergies will help grow the number of firms producing and owning green technology inventions and innovations for local and global markets.
The EU is committed to strengthening research, innovation and teaching capacities within Africa, along with harnessing the interaction between education, science, technology and innovation for improved learning.
It also aims to help Africa onto a sustainable trajectory of low-carbon, climate resilient and green growth to accelerate the green transition and expanded energy access.
The African Continental Free Trade Area is in turn poised to boost demand and attract finance for diversified products, backed by STISA-24, higher production standards and stronger intellectual property regimes. Africa’s basic challenge is to get things done.
It needs to stimulate R&D guided by its development plans and largely funded from domestic resources. It needs a clear implementation strategy, with solid data for rigorous monitoring and evaluation. Africa also needs leaders able to distill appropriate policies from scientifically literate advisors.
Mauritius is something of an example. This small island state has endured increasing frequency and intensity of economically devastating cyclones and other extreme weather events. In response, it is converting the challenge of climate change into opportunities for advanced research and resilience building.
Among other notable actions, Mauritius opened a Climate Change Information Centre, harvesting data for better planning, disaster management, economic recovery and rehabilitation after catastrophic events. The country also plays a pivotal role in the regional Indian Ocean Commission, sharing knowledge on building resilience to climate extremes.
African countries can meet the 1% R&D target by building a science and technology base, facilitating technology commercialization, encouraging emergent technology hubs and stimulating private sector R&D with a proportion of public R&D contracts. All these measures take time to bear fruit and in this era of COVID-19 and climate change, Africa’s youth have no time to lose.
This is part of a series produced for the United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (UNU-INRA) and the German Economic Cooperation and Development ministry on green transformation post COVID-19. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the institutions involved in the project.
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is the former President of Mauritius
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.