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African governments must invest in research and development

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Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA) – President Cyril Ramaphosa listens to Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, founder of the multinational conglomerate NantWorks. LLC, at the launch of the NantSA vaccine manufacturing campus at Brackengate, Cape Town. The African continent’s economic growth and development cannot happen without investment in research and development, the writer says.

By Edwin Naidu

Despite boasting an abundance of biodiversity, the African continent has not capitalised on its rich tapestry of plant and animal life when solving the world’s problems through science, producing a mere two percent of the global research output.

The picture looks worse when you consider that this meagre output makes up only 1.3 percent of spending on research, resulting in only 0.1 percent of all patents registered.

For all the natural wealth in resources, this is poor from the African continent. One of the reasons for the low research output lies in the inadequate funding for research and development (R&D) by governments on the continent. With the poverty and inequality gap widening between the haves and have-nots, science may be considered a luxury, given that food, water, sanitation, education, housing, and social welfare needs may be pressing. Inevitably, one would have heard too often from many an academic that Africans are recipients rather than innovators.

African governments indeed spend a tiny fraction of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on research in the development of science and technology. GDP is a monetary measure of a nation’s overall economic activity during a specific period.

South Africa has been working for years on R&D tax incentives as part of an extensive package of policy instruments driven by the Department of Science and Innovation, along with the South African Revenue Service, Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, Technology Innovation Agency and National Treasury to promote innovation and enhance competitiveness, supporting economic growth. It has enjoyed benefits and boosted the coffers of the country.

But a government task team investigating the R&D tax incentive found lengthy delays in receiving application feedback and consequent prejudice suffered by applicants. While one needs processes, the bureaucracy in South Africa has been a frustration for many from all walks of life.

In a paper for the Brookings Institute, former Mauritius President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim and renowned academic Landry Signé said that a lack of investment in science and technology has undermined Africa’s economic transformation and had far-reaching consequences: Without the economic and scientific infrastructure necessary for innovation, they wrote that the continent has continued to rely on the colonial development model of resource extraction, which is both unsustainable and primarily responsible for its debilitating poverty and aid dependency.

It has been proven that science can help society in a variety of ways, a fact born out by the sterling response of scientists in Nigeria during the Covid-19 pandemic when the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) at Redeemer’s University in Ede, Nigeria, produced the first sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 within 72 hours of getting the sample.

Dr Christian Happi, the Professor and Director of ACEGID, says this success catalysed the surge of genomic sequencing by scientists on the continent, whose data was effectively used to guide the public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa.

Applications of these genomic sequences in Africa include using gene editing technology to quickly develop a SARS-CoV-2 rapid diagnostic test (SHINE) and creating a Covid-19 DNA-based vaccine (DIOSYNVAX) at ACEGID in collaboration with the Broad Institute and the University of Cambridge.

Happi also notes in a Brookings Institute article that Africa is endowed with vibrant biodiversity, including pathogens causing many infectious diseases afflicting the continent.

Sadly, Africa has failed to use this as an opportunity to develop solutions (e.g., diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines) that could benefit the world. While Happi argues that it is clear that Africa has harnessed and localised genomic technology in less than a decade, he says its practical use and translational applications on the continent are limited and may not move beyond the current level of development.

Some obstacles preventing the forward movement of the genomic capability demonstrated by African scientists include a lack of political will; inadequate funding for research and development (R&D) by governments, regional funders, developmental organisations, or African private sector and philanthropists; lack of local infrastructure to support R&D; lack of local investment in the development and emergence of the biotechnology sector; and absence of well-trained and skilled human resources.

Of most concern, Happi warns, is that the political and academic ecosystems in Africa are not leveraging the rich and diverse resources available through its diaspora.

Indeed, Gurib-Fakim and Signé suggested that building an ecosystem where scientific culture can be central to economic transformation and policy-making decisions is a long-term investment that must not be at the mercy of either political or business cycles.

They say success will require effective tripartite (public-private-academia) collaborations and partnerships that will need to be sustained over time. Suppose Africa can do this in the African Continental Free Trade Area era. In that case, the benefits of science, technology, and innovation can be marshalled for greater economic, social, and environmental sustainability, both on the continent and beyond.

A group of academics under the banner African Voices of Science say that the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated more than ever before the importance of science in modern society. But beyond the warnings and the rhetoric, there must be action.

In one such example of positive development, later this month, Yershen Pillay, the former youth leader, now chief executive officer of the Chemical Industries Education and Training Authority (CHIETA), will hand over the scissors to the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Dr Blade Nzimande for the launch of a game-changing initiative for young people in the digital space. They will open an R3.5 million hi-tech centre for young people in Saldanha Bay on the West Coast, providing free training courses in digital skills, such as coding, programming, data sciences etc. Through Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence technology, they would also receive career training in fields considered scarce skills, such as welding.

Pillay’s organisation, the CHIETA, has embarked on an 18-month research project: A comprehensive study of hydrogen power in SA, which will support the hydrogen economy.

Pillay describes the hydrogen economy as a potential “game changer” not just for South Africa but for the world at large; South Africa is well-positioned to capitalise on the rapidly developing global hydrogen economy, reindustrialise the country and become an exporter of cost-effective green hydrogen to the world.

Looking at how to inspire young people to get ready for green economy careers, Pillay says access to information was crucial. Young people in some parts of the country could not afford the taxi fare to travel to post office outlets for digital services.

The centre will enable young people to access information on science, technology, engineering and maths and explore future career opportunities in hydrogen as a systems engineer or hydrogen systems designer. Using VR technology, students would be taught welding skills and, through a partnership with the University of Johannesburg, be given access to a free course on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, ensuring that young people are not left behind.

This little investment on the West Coast is a drop in the ocean. But if it has the desired impact, it could become one model to inspire future leaders in science and technology in an area better known for fishing and other industries.

The message to African governments is clear: the continent’s economic growth and development cannot happen without investment in research and development.

Naidu is a journalist and communications expert. He is also head of Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness around education and the socio-economic, environmental, and political factors it influences in South Africa and the African Continent.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.