Interview with Dr Álvaro Sobrinho, Chairman of the Planet Earth Institute: August 2015

This post by Planet Earth Institute is a Q&A with their founder and Chairman, Alvaro Sobrinho, on his vision of Africa’s scientific independence and the Post -2015 debate.

Álvaro Sobrinho, one of Angola’s leading business figures and philanthropists, and Chairman of the Planet Earth Institute, talks about his plans to make Africa a global science hub.

Dr Sobrinho, you have launched a campaign for ‘Africa’s Scientific Independence’, which is also the mandate of the Planet Earth Institute, the charity that you helped establish. Can you tell us a bit about what you mean by that term?

Well, currently, Africa is hugely dependent on the scientific knowledge and expertise of others. As Africans, whether Governments, businesses or societies, we are too often consumers, not producers of scientific innovation or research. As such, we are unable to make the best use of our abundant human and natural resources we are blessed with. And that’s what the campaign and related projects is attempting to change.

To me, scientific independence means having science, technology and innovation embedded in government policies alongside resourced and empowered institutions, including universities. It means the ability to produce – and keep! – many more brilliant scientists and to have science in the societal consciousness as a public good for us all.

Scientific Independence will be achieved when Africa is using innovation and research to move from knowledge consumption to knowledge creation, impacting every part of our daily life, from better healthcare systems to smarter food storage or agriculture.

What does African Scientific independence look like? How many scientists? How many universities and academic institutions in Africa?

I am often asked to define scientific independence in numbers, and I can see why. But first, you have to realise what an important step forward it is to even be thinking about African development in these terms – and that’s why I wanted provocative language around our mission with the Planet Earth Institute. That is the main purpose of the vision, to champion the importance of STI in Africa, which goes beyond numbers.

But on the question, as one example, Africa as a whole has around 35 scientists and engineers per million inhabitants, compared with around 130 in India, 168 for Brazil and 450 in China, never mind the figures of 2,457 and 4,103 for Europe and the United States respectively. I’m not going to say a magic number but it should be obvious to everyone that we need to increase those percentages to around the levels of other fast-developing growth regions.

And, on scientific institutions, we also need to be careful when talking numbers. I’d say the priority for Africa in the near future is less about more universities more about better ones. As Amina Mohammed, Ban Ki-moon’s Special Adviser on Post 2015 issues said recently, “most universities in Africa are just left ticking over, without the resources they need and operating at about 10-20% capacity”. We need to fix that – and fast – to make universities places for innovation not just factories for degrees. There are now a number of African governments running large-scale investment programmes in their universities, fitting out new laboratories and upgrading equipment, and this is all a physical manifestation of a growing recognition of the importance of science.

And what will the campaign seek to change?

More than anything, we want to change the mindset of how science, technology and innovation are viewed in Africa.  Our campaign will bring broad coalitions of people together, from academics and students to businesses, government and civil society, to champion the role science plays in every day lives and the importance it has for our future. We want to get science in the public narrative, and continue to push these issues as a priority in all government strategies and global discussions about sustainable development, including those involving what follows the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.

Resource and finance for research, more effective international STI collaboration, production and retention of local scientists, diversification of African economies, public appreciation and knowledge of science, sustainable, long-term growth and development. They will all flow from this shift in mindset. It’s happening, in part, but it’s fragile and patchy and we need to support it.

What are the consequences of Africa not achieving scientific independence?

The consequences are grave. The choice is clear – do we stay as a continent filled with countries based on production, of crops, of minerals and such, or do we join the knowledge economy, based on skills and innovation?

While many countries – including my own home in Angola – have experienced recent economic growth, movement beyond lower-middle income status relies on this shift. It’s what successful countries in Latin America and Asia have done and it’s what those in Africa must seek to do.

What differentiates Africa from the rest of the world in terms of science?

Sadly, the neglect of science separates our continent from the rest of the world.

As a whole, we have become too focused on short-term emergency and too dependent on foreign aid. In many instances that has been necessary, but it’s also necessary to realise that this dependence has left the continent vulnerable and unable to embrace the enormous benefits on our continent.

 

Take Nigeria as an example. Even with one of the biggest and most powerful agriculture sectors, employing over half of their workforce, the Nomura Food Index lists Nigeria as the forth most vulnerable country in the world to changes in food prices, and the country spends $10 billion annually on food imports. Why? Because the country doesn’t have the scientific expertise and capacity to effectively manage this blessed resource. Compare that to China, say, who took over 40% of their population out of poverty in ten years by aggressive investment in agricultural management and scientific expertise.

Does there need to be an increase in quality of schooling at lower levels before tertiary education can flourish?

 

Yes, but how do we improve the quality of schools? One important way is to improve the quality of teachers, through effective tertiary education. It’s an interconnected issue. And the focus we at the PEI place on tertiary education is not to distract from the huge challenges that still remain at a lower levels – of course there is much more to do. And let’s not forget that around 30 million kids in Africa don’t even get to go to school.

 

But what we want is an integrated approach – one that continues to increase the quality and reach of education across the board, but one that properly includes and invests in tertiary education, which for the last twenty years has seen a significant

under-resource, including a per capita cut in spend of almost 85%. The Universities in Africa today are often worse than they were in the 1980s.

How do you prevent African scientists leaving the continent and conducting their research and teaching elsewhere?

I strongly believe we must create an inviting environment for them to stay. That means working with everyone involved, in government, industry, civil society, the media and across the board to create and sustain a stimulating environment.

That includes commitments to financially support research, the infrastructural capacity required, the right tools in place to give science and scientists the prominence it deserves in our societies. Professors need to be well paid, well –backed to research their specialisms, allowed to innovate – and fail – and to be respected figures in society that are seen as improving the everyday lives of millions of people.

And the model we have created with our PhD Centres seeks to do just that. It is not just about training local academics and scientists, but working with industry and across society to build a place for academics to stay and lead development in. Securing our scientists local jobs, allocating them resources and supporting them to do what they need to do – that’s what will keep them there.

Who is involved in the scientific independence campaign and what’s planned?

The campaign is led by the Planet Earth Institute (PEI), a NGO and charity I helped establish a few years ago and currently Chair, who work specifically on science, technology and innovation in Africa.  A number of leading organisations are involved, including the African Union, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the World Bank, who are all now at the forefront of STI in Africa. But it’s a campaign for everyone, too, from school children to Ministers. We’ll be building on that work this year and expanding our campaigning activities across Africa. That includes, I’m delighted to say, opening a permanent office in Kigali, Rwanda, that will run local events and projects from January 2015.

We have been involved in the Post 2015 debates, which are now drawing to a close, and I am pleased to see science given prominence, especially in the recommendations coming from Africa from the AU and UNECA, for example. We will continue to support the Post 2015 agenda once the goals are out, trying to focus on how to get African scientists and innovators better involved in the delivery of local policies and programmes.

So if its Africa’s scientific independence, and most of the partners are drawn from Africa, does that mean the rest of the world aren’t involved? Isn’t science about collaboration?

Scientific independence is not scientific isolation – and it can never be. Scientific development and expertise is built on collaboration, locally, regionally and internationally, and Africa’s scientific development will be both more rapid and far-reaching with support from the best and the brightest across the world.

By independence we mean an end to dependency and the ability for Africa to lead it’s own development agenda. It’s a provocative mission and I often talk to people who disagree with the language. But we chose it to help stimulate debate and get attention, as well as raise questions about Africa’s current scientific dependence.

As a businessman not a scientist – what role do you see for the private sector in this agenda?

I’ve been involved in business all my life. And I know the huge importance for business on this agenda. I am in the early stages of co-launching a group of African Business Champions for Science, along with the World Bank Africa team and their Vice President Makhtar Diop. This new group of influential business leaders, each of who employ thousands and run numerous organisations, will help finance new scientific and academic programmes and also raise the voice of industry in the campaign. At the PEI, we have just launched our business-led Partners Forum, for organisations who are willing to join the campaign and to help build a movement for increased focus on science.

What do you and PEI want from others interested in the campaign?

More than anything, we need partnerships. PEI is a development charity, but one that focused on science as the key tool. We need to continue to build our broad partnerships with academic institutes, governments, industry and civil society across the globe for Africa’s scientific independence. So I ask anyone interested to join us!

Dr Alvaro Sobrinho is an Angolan businessman and philanthropist, and is the Chairman of the Planet Earth Institute, an NGO and charity working for the ‘scientific independence of Africa’.

Dr Alvaro

Dr Álvaro Sobrinho with H.E. Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union and The Right Hon Lord Boateng, Trustee of the PEI

 

 

H.E President

 

Dr Álvaro Sobrinho speaks alongside H.E. President Macky Sall on his vision for scientific independence in Dakar, Senegal.

2 Comments on "Interview with Dr Álvaro Sobrinho, Chairman of the Planet Earth Institute: August 2015"

  1. Reblogged this on matharevalley and commented:
    The first step towards real freedom for Africa through scientific independence

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