Big Ideas for Africa: Empowering the Continent’s Scientific and Technological Pioneers

I am delighted that Africans are creating scientific and technological innovations that tackle some of the continent’s leading development challenges. For example, Zambian scientist, Professor Kelly Chibale, and his team have discovered two anti-malarial compounds that have the potential to fight the malaria parasite at all three stages of its life cycle. I’ve also been impressed to hear about the new start-up, LifeBank, spearheaded by Nigerian entrepreneur, Temie Giwa-Tobosun, which helps hospitals and doctors find and order blood types needed through its marketplace app.

Despite these inspirational stories, at present the continent remains a minor contributor to global science, technology and innovation. The facts are well known: although Africa accounts for 15% of the world’s population and 5% of global GDP, it contributes less than 2% to global scientific research. Research from the World Bank also indicates that much of this output is dependent on international collaborators. What’s more, while our countries boast dynamic and entrepreneurial populations, the continent holds less than 0.1% of the world’s patents.

Considering the backdrop of global economic uncertainty and shifting donor priorities, these statistics are particularly concerning. If we are to ensure that sustainable development is a reality for all and that Africa thrives in the global knowledge economy, we must take immediate action. As a recognised engine of economic growth, for-profit businesses are well positioned to partner with African countries to empower local scientific and technological pioneers.

First, for-profit businesses can provide funding that allows talented local scientists to pursue research that tackles the continent’s development challenges. For example, pharmaceutical giant, GSK’s Trust in Science Africa programme provides funding for researchers to deliver medicines specific to patients’ needs in areas including respiratory and non-communicable diseases, metabolic diseases and immunology. Initiatives such as these are beneficial to all stakeholders. According to Professor Kevin Marsh, Senior Adviser at the African Academy of Sciences, African countries will need to invest $2 billion per year in Research and Development to address infrastructure needs and career development at universities and other research organisations. Hence, research funding from for-profit businesses could complement African governments’ own efforts to invest in Research & Development. These initiatives also help ensure that our scientists and researchers receive the financial support they need to pursue locally and globally significant scientific research, and strengthen companies’ positioning in an increasingly important market.

According to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina of the African Development Bank, there is a vibrant culture of entrepreneurialism on the continent, with about 80 per cent of Africans viewing entrepreneurship as a good career opportunity. Considering the enormous resources at their disposal, big businesses are well equipped to assist scientific and technological entrepreneurs. Company executives could provide mentoring and other assistance to dynamic, young Africans who are keen to start their own businesses. They can also play a guiding role in the tech hubs that are sparking some of the most exciting innovations to emerge in the region.

Additionally, private sector companies can help young entrepreneurs protect their creations from exploitation by helping raise awareness of IP rights legislation. This is something Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative achieved through the IP hub, whose ownership and management was transferred to the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) this year. Programmes like these can build local human and technical capital, a long-term enabler of economic growth, and boost innovation.

Finally, if we truly want to enhance home grown scientific and technological innovation, we must make every effort to connect the many talented individuals and organisations working on the continent. In this respect, the latest technologies offer a powerful way of fostering collaboration. Given their brand equity and resources, I would encourage private sector companies to enhance their support for African innovation by joining the PEI exChange, the first online matching platform for African development.

What makes the PEI exCHANGE so valuable to businesses is that it is both a global community passionate about the continent, as well as a valuable source of development information. For example, private sector companies can use the PEI exChange to facilitate technological and skills transfer. In addition, businesses can use the platform to facilitate talent scouting and recruitment, allowing them to source appropriately qualified local personnel as well as boost job creation. What’s more, the platform can help for-profit businesses to follow the latest and greatest scientific and technological developments, as well as new trends and ideas. In this way, using the PEI exChange can allow businesses to enhance their operations on the continent, as well as drive sustainable investment in local scientific innovation and capabilities.

Ultimately, boosting scientific and technological innovation in Africa is a business and developmental imperative. I call on private sector companies to join forces with African governments, universities and the broader civil society to address this challenge.

The Planet Earth Institute #ScienceAfrica UnConference on 20th July will bring together 250+ delegates to celebrate the continent’s science and technology pioneers. You can watch the #ScienceAfrica UnConference on the PEI’s Facebook page. The UnConference will also see the launch of the PEI exChange.