Contrary to widespread perception, sub-Saharan Africa is home to new science initiatives that are helping to pull the continent out of its turbulent recent history.

From the DEC/JAN 2006 issue of Seed:

Flagship of the national optical observatory, the Southern African Large Telescope in Sutherland, South Africa, demonstrates that the frontiers of science are not entirely reserved for the developed world. Credit: South African Astronomical Observatory

The overwhelming majority of the news coverage that Africa receives focuses on the continent’s myriad political and public-health problems (and there are many). What’s less well-known is that the region is building a firm foundation for sustained economic growth through efforts that have remained largely out of view of the Western media. While democracy and capital investment are serving as the cornerstones of real development in a number of African countries, it is the continent’s science and technology projects that are beginning to provide a sturdy framework for long-term social, political and economic success.

Most of the news about sub-Saharan Africa’s scientific and technological future has focused on what rich Northern countries can do for their impoverished African brethren. There’s the G-8 communiqué on sub-Saharan Africa (based on the UK’s Commission for Africa report, “Our Common Interest”); the work of the World Bank and its partner organizations, seeking to develop centers of scientific excellence in biotechnology, mathematics and other fields; the $20 million, 10-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation designed to build the capacity of science academies in the region; and many others.

While these massive contributions are welcome (and indeed essential), the greatest opportunities for sustained progress are being developed within sub-Saharan Africa itself; and it is these that, more than anything else, give Africans cause for hope.

In Nigeria, reformed science policies are emphasizing such frontline scientific ventures as electronic communications, biotechnology and space science. In 2003, Nigerian scientists launched the region’s first satellite, intended to enhance Africa’s remote sensing capabilities, and it plans to launch the region’s first communications satellite. Senegal has sponsored research initiatives that are leading to higher-yielding crops and improved cattle breeds, and the nation’s scientists are now sharing this information with agricultural researchers and practitioners in other African nations. South Africa has taken advantage of an existing scientific infrastructure left behind after the collapse of apartheid to create the continent’s strongest scientific base, largely by promoting scientific talent across the full its budget for scientific research from $20,000 to more than $600,000 over the past decade. Ghana has witnessed an increase in Internet users from 10,000 to 500,000 in just the past five years. And Uganda has requested a $20 million loan from the World Bank to reform the nation’s scientific institutes and establish scientific centers of excellence.

These large-scale national efforts and signs of scientific and technological growth have been matched on the regional level as well. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development is focusing on the creation of centers of excellence in science and technology as a critical element in its overall economic development strategy for Africa. The Network of African Science Academies is working to improve and expand existing African science educational institutions and to build new ones in countries where they don’t currently exist (just 12 of the region’s 48 countries have merit-based national science academies). The Nigerian government has contributed $5 million to the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) Endowment Fund to help the continent’s only regional academy develop a series of cross-national projects. And the Kenyan government has endowed the AAS with the status of full international organization, helping raise the its profile and ease its budget through special tax privileges.

Innovative approaches to conducting scientific research are emerging from individual labs as well. For example, in Nigeria, the malaria group at the University of Ibadan is conducting research on a local disease problem, as is the Federal University of Technology-Minna, which has developed a typhoid vaccine for their own population. Makerere University’s Medical Biotechnology Laboratories in Kampala, Uganda, has an extensive molecular biology research and training program; among its most noteworthy efforts are studies of alternative treatments of river blindness, a fly-borne parasitic disease that just a decade ago afflicted one out of every three villagers in parts of Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria and other nations.

It would be naive to think that this series of activities, however impressive in its scope and breadth, means that sub-Saharan Africa will soon push aside its problems and chart a clear path to peace and prosperity. The troubles faced by the region are too entrenched and will take years of sustained and focused attention to solve. Nearly half of the population lives in extreme poverty, eking out survival on less than $1 a day; 40% do not have access to safe drinking water and more than 50% live without adequate sanitation; more than 15% of the region’s children die before their fifth birthday and HIV/AIDS now afflicts more than 25 million people, pushing the average life expectancy in some countries below 45 years of age.

Yet through all these grim statistics there is a sense of growing self-sufficiency sparked in part by the continent’s renewed interest in science and technology. And that’s why it’s sub-Saharan Africa’s rising efforts to extricate itself from extreme poverty—unfolding in ministries of science, science academies, universities, research centers, laboratories and schools—that deserve our utmost attention and support.

Originally published January 20, 2006

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