Africa’s technological revolution will start in schools & research labs

Article first appeared on The NEW Times Rwanda:

In the last few months, there has been a lot of discussion around the technological revolution and its role in what the World Economic Forum (WEF) has dubbed the 4th Industrial Revolution. Before I go on, I want to make clear that Africa is not a country and therefore successes and challenges vary by state. Keeping this in mind, how will Africa fair in the 4thIndustrial Revolution?

In the last few months, there has been a lot of discussion around the technological revolution and its role in what the World Economic Forum (WEF) has dubbed the 4th Industrial Revolution. Before I go on, I want to make clear that Africa is not a country and therefore successes and challenges vary by state. Keeping this in mind, how will Africa fair in the 4th Industrial Revolution?

We cannot respond positively to this question if we do not urgently change our views and practice around research, in science and technology, and how we view development and commercialization of research coming from the continent.

At a conference last October, I was asked to speak about Africa’s technology venture capital and entrepreneurship environment. I made it clear that we must view this question within a wider context of the pipeline of grade school and higher education challenges, the amount of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) research published at our universities and our ability to take research from labs to starts ups to industries.

Let’s start with the good news, according to Brighty and Hruby, the continent now has 200 innovation hubs, 3,500 new tech related projects, and $1 billion in venture capital moving around on the continent for start-up entrepreneurs. But there’s a catch.

Most of what we read about technological innovation revolves around mobile technology – from financial transactions to applications for healthcare etc. Most recently, we are starting to see more advanced technology like drones but we have yet to see the more deep tech start-ups (start-ups using their own unique hardware to reproduce innovations based on technological and scientific advances). Why is that?

I’m not a subject matter expert but I identify two main reasons. The first is that we are not doing the cutting edge research that produces deep tech innovations. Second, we don’t have the venture capital environment (here read market capability) to develop this research.

To address the first challenge, countries like Rwanda, are bringing in world renowned universities like Carnegie Mellon University, centres of excellence like the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) and research institutions like ICTP. These bring in much needed talent and are meant to build local capacity (especially among up and coming researchers and post-docs). In the long term though, it is only a stop gap measure if our grade schools and universities are not preparing students to become strong independent researchers.

The other day, someone asked me why the organisation I work for, the Next Einstein Forum, was focused on increasing PhD holders on the continent. “Why not just teach everyone coding and entrepreneur skills so people can make money?”

Teaching coding to young students, even preparing them for the business world has its place, but PhDs are important because they mean independent peer reviewed research – it means you’re a specialist at something. Of course, PhDs by themselves are not enough. Once research is carried at our universities (implying that we are investing in the research happening at our higher education institutions), we need mechanisms to see them to development (trial process) and commercialization.

The whole world is in the midst of what I call the standardization crisis, where focus is on passing exams to move to the next grade instead of assessing learning, critical thinking and problem solving. This is not unique to Africa but we certainly need to work on this urgently. We cannot bury our head in the sand, there are best practices, starting with how we train and empower teachers and how we determine learning success.

As we change how we determine learning success, we also have to address how to retain scientists and researchers as they move along the pipeline. There are many reasons why strong researchers drop out. Research, as it stands today across the continent, isn’t a viable career option unless you want to become a boring lecturer.

We need to create or strengthen strong retention programs, particularly for women, and launch public engagement campaigns to demonstrate the importance and opportunities in research. In Senegal for example, they have an innovative sandwich PhD program for women. AIMS has set up research chairs that guarantee livelihood and research environment and growth, and we’ve been successful at getting some of the most brilliant young African scientists back on the continent.

The second reason is inexistent development and commercialization processes. Again, this is not an Africa only challenge but who can tell me how many African universities have a strong link between research (from universities or research institutions) to start ups and industry. Most researchers are not automatic entrepreneurs and need the tools and information to take the jump. In addition, there’s the issue of funding and legal questions around intellectual property. While there is no one way of doing this, universities such as Stellenbosch and the University of Cape Town in South Africa have attached incubator style innovation hubs to their research departments (see Lab Central based in the US for best practice). These provide tools and funding to see ideas go from paper to research based start-ups.

There are no short cuts if Africa is to compete globally and see local dividends. Did you know that mathematical sciences (all sciences that rely on mathematics) contribute 16% of the UK’s Gross Added Value and 22.5% of Australia’s GDP (Source: UK Council for Mathematics; Australian Academy of Sciences). Knowledge based economies are driven by research and development – which does not preclude the need for TVET and artistic studies (a holistic approach to research that doesn’t separate STEM from the social sciences and the arts is critical).

Even basic research that has no immediate use is critical for sustainability. For this, we need to empower researchers to do research – not just lecturing. We need to support the research to lab to start up transition and we need to drastically change how our children learn. This is the battlefield of the 21st Century.

The writer manages partnerships and public engagement for the Next Einstein Forum (initiative of African Institute for Mathematical Sciences).

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