Africa must position herself to tap from the numerous benefits provided by application of science, technology and innovations (ST&I) in the 21st century. The fast growth in ST&I developments is equally paralleled by a surge in complex societal challenges requiring swift multisectoral interventions. Today, we are faced with new-world challenges ranging from the burgeoning global population to climate change, with adverse effects on our food production systems, environment and health. Needless to say, Africa is the one region worse hit by the effects of climate change, with unsustainable population dynamics pushing the continent to the brink of desperation.
This then begs the question, who has got the solutions? What options do we have for both mitigation and adaptation amidst these challenges? Well, I do not attempt to answer these questions here due to risk of under exhaustion of possible alternatives but I’d like to observe that some of these challenges we are facing have solutions that are already in our hands or are within close reach. What is needed most is an operational structure, a level of organization that allows for cooperation and synergy in addressing challenges either unique to countries of cross-cutting to regions.
Let’s take for instance, food and nutrition security in Africa. Over the past two decades, the continent has seen its capacity to produce enough food diminish considerably, owing to a combination of factors including poor seed quality, emergence of new and more virulent crop pests and diseases, overreliance on rain-fed agriculture, lack of optimal agricultural technologies as well as shrinking agricultural workforce due to rural-urban migration and growing preferences to white-collar jobs. Let’s agree that there is no single panacea that will fix this. Food and nutrition insecurity don’t have a flip-switch kind of solution. At least not one that I’m aware of. Instead, what we have are disparate efforts by different stakeholders that, if put together and implemented efficiently would make a whole lot of difference.
A classic example of these disparate efforts is the research that our crop scientists have being doing for years. Every now and then I meet a scientist who narrates to me the amazing work they are doing on improving a certain crop’s productivity, resistance to pests and diseases, tolerance to drought and salinity, and so on and so forth. Amazing things they are doing in state-of-the-art research centers, and of course they have journal publications to prove it. Aha, of course they do! We all know that’s how success is measured in research, publish or perish, right? The question we keep asking is, where do all these innovations end up? Who benefits from them? The worrying fact is, more often than not, these innovations ends up in shelves and publications, and we eventually forget about them.
Evidence of the gap in transition of ST&I research to tangible solutions in our society is overwhelming. At the East African Science and Technology Commission (EASTECO), we seek to establish regional integration in identifying challenges common to countries while encouraging stakeholders to work together in addressing them. African countries commonly list ST&I as a key driver to economic growth and development. This, however, will remain an unachievable goal unless policies enabling public-private partnerships, regional collaborations and pooling and mobilization of both human and capital resources are enacted.
If a scientist working on a useful innovation [let’s say that could help double a country’s rice production] will not sit on the same table with a policymaker and explain how his/her research will contribute to country’s growth and development, then there is a real risk this innovation may never see the light of day [and that country’s rice production will remain as it is, or worse]. We must not live in oblivion of this fact. A lot of ST&I research work is being done in Africa, the challenge is that individuals/teams are working in quiet isolation, leaving very little chance for adoption and implementation. To realize the full potential of ST&I in contributing to growth and development, all relevant stakeholders must agree to come together and present a united front as we soldier towards 2050.
Ms. Gertrude Ngabirano is the Executive Secretary, East African Science & Technology Commission (EASTECO). You can reach her on firstname.lastname@example.org.