Strengthening African Science
by Esther Ngumbi-Mareeg.com-URBANA, ILLINOIS – In late March, Africa’s leading scientists, innovators, and policymakers met in Kigali, Rwanda, to brainstorm solutions to an increasingly pressing problem: the low quality of science on the continent.
Any good leader knows that scientific discovery and innovation fuels progress, facilitates development, and can help tackle issues like food insecurity, water shortages, and climate change. And yet most African governments are failing to fund research and development adequately in their countries. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa spend, on average, just 0.5% of GDP on research and development. In the West, the share is closer to 3%.
This disparity underscores the development challenges that Africans face. Africa is home to 15% of the world’s population and 5% of its GDP, but accounts for a paltry 1.3% of total research spending. Moreover, African inventors hold just 0.1% of the world’s patents, meaning that even when money is spent on science, innovation, and research, the findings rarely translate into solutions for the continent’s most immediate challenges.
To be sure, these trends are not universal; some African governments are investing heavily in science-led innovation. In South Africa, for example, authorities have pledged to double R&D spending by 2020 – to 1.5% of GDP. This follows a 2016 commitment by African heads of state to increase science and technology budgets to at least 1% of GDP by 2025. A handful of countries – including Kenya, Rwanda, and Senegal – are working hard to reach this funding threshold.
Africa also benefits from generous research-related aid and international support. One of the top donors, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has invested more than $450 million in African science initiatives over the last decade. Projects include a $306 million program to boost crop yields and a $62.5 million grant to improve health outcomes. These and other funding streams have helped African researchers develop drought-resistant crops, produce vaccines for infectious diseases like Ebola, and expand opportunities for science and technology education.