Science and technology in Africa’s Post 2015 world – and the crucial role of business

Written by Dr Álvaro Sobrinho, Chairman of the Planet Earth Institute – an international NGO and charity working for the ‘scientific independence of Africa’.

post2015picLast week it was my pleasure to lead a delegation to the United Nations headquarters in New York, as part of our Planet Earth Institute (PEI) campaign to see science, technology and innovation play a key role in Africa’s Post-2015 development. Hosted by Ambassador Téte António and the Permanent Observer Mission to the UN of the African Union, and working with Ms Amina J. Mohammed, the UN Secretary General’s Adviser on Post-2015 planning, our conference gathered policy makers and African diplomats together to strengthen commitment to this agenda.

As priorities begin to be consolidated within the Post-2015 Open Working Group and, crucially, the other institutional frameworks emanating from Africa, it is particularly critical to continue to fight for the prominence of science and technology for our continent’s development, and to build support for the cause. In my view and that of the PEI, no development agenda will be complete without addressing the critical issue such of Africa’s scientific deficit. The figures are now well known, from the lowest tertiary enrolment rate (less than a quarter of the global average), to a scientific output that is still little more than 2% of global total – and that is being optimistic. A recent sample of African universities found only 17 capable of producing more than 20 published scientific articles a year.

While there has been much to welcome in recent years (in particular the landmark Common Position Paper for Africa on the Post-2015 agenda published a few months ago) which places science and technology as the second pillar of our shared development goals, the international community can do far more in terms of clear frameworks and delivery mechanisms. And in these delivery mechanisms and practical steps, I think one partner needs to emerge from the shadows: the private sector.

As someone who has spent their life in the private sector in emerging African economies, I see the ability that enterprise has to make scientific debates real and tangible, through job creation and investment in new technologies that can improve the daily lives of local communities. But, for too long, business in Africa has sought make a quick buck, drafting in skills from elsewhere to fill the gaps rather than investing in long-term and locally driven programmes that will aid technology transfer and sustainable development. For anyone working on the continent it is no secret; but it needs to change and, in the post-2015 framework, I hope to see more inclusion – and responsibility – for business. Through structured knowledge exchange programmes (including industry placements, investment in new scientific ideas, patents and technologies) alongside growing scholarships and strengthened relations, business can provide a real boost for an often under-resourced and over-stretched academic community in Africa.

As distinguished Professor Phillip Griffiths of the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE), who have provided scholarships for over 150 PhD students in Africa, said at our Conference last week: “More businesses should collaborate with science programmes at universities to update curricula and make them more locally relevant…Business is a mix of technical skills and social skills, and universities [in Africa] could benefit from more dialogue with business, because they require both sets of skills in graduates.” Similar points were made about the value of private sector engagement across a vast range of issues, from intellectual property rights, to empowering women through financial inclusion and poverty eradication through skills and training. What struck me most was that almost without exception, among those who joined our conference, ranging from Ambassadors and policy-makers, to academics, students and NGO workers, the role of business was unanimously being supported and championed.

But as the post-2015 process begins to formalise, we must move to the how, and give clear indication of the types of role and responsibility the private sector should assume. If we want to boost Africa’s scientific development, to increase the global competitiveness of those educated in our universities and to provide attractive reasons for African scientists to remain in Africa (currently around a third leave to work abroad), we need a strong and fruitful partnership with the private sector. But it’s the role of all of us in the development community to ensure it’s designed and delivered in a way that makes the most of future possibilities and doesn’t repeat the mistakes of years gone by.

Over the coming months, I will be working with my team at the Planet Earth Institute and a core group of African businessmen and businesswomen dedicated to this agenda, and urge the support of all those passionate about the future of our continent.

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