Africa’s scientists need to claim their rightful place as equals on global table

Friday April 13 2018

Thierry Zomahoun,

Thierry Zomahoun, the president of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. PHOTO | ELIZABETH MERAB | NATION 

By ELIZABETH MERAB
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The president of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Thierry Zomahoun spoke to Elizabeth Merab on the sidelines of the Next Einstein Forum in Kigali.

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What does the Next Einstein Forum seek to achieve?

The NEF aims to showcase the contributions Africa is making to global science, because, for far too long, her contribution has been downplayed — if not undermined.

It is important for young African scientists with great projects to get international recognition.

By telling our own story and changing the narrative and picture of Africa as being only great in sports and entertainment, we will restore Africa’s important place on the global stage of sciences.

Whereas there is nothing wrong with being champions in sports and entertainment, being confined there for decades when we equally have bright minds is unacceptable, especially when there is evidence that the continent is not only the cradle of humanity but also mathematics, which is the backbone of the modern economy.

If the basis of the NEF and African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) is to ensure that Africa adopts innovation, science and technology, is Africa merely playing catch-up?

I do not believe in playing catch-up. Africa will never succeed if it chooses the role of catching up. Africa needs to chart its own course of development and transformation and not to copy-paste from either India, China or Brazil.

We have realities and contexts which are not similar to those in the West and it is up to us to chart our own course.

For instance, we are in the digital economy and, as you know, the world has passed two information technology core revolutions, yet Africa never made it past the analog revolution.

The digital revolution is here and experts are telling us that in 15-20 years, this digital era will expire because what led to the birth of this second technological revolution is the invention of the transistor by John Bardeen and his colleagues.

The shift from analogue to where we are now is because the transistor has been getting increasingly smaller, to power phones and laptops.

Since the transistor cannot get any tinier, necessity can only pave the way for a quantum revolution. This tells you that by the time Africa is catching up with the digital revolution, the West will have already embarked on the quantum revolution.

Bureaucracy seems to hamper patenting of ideas and creation of an enabling environment for private capital and funding of science. Why does this persist? Is it because governments are not listening or they are listening but not acting?

Whereas it is true that these hindrances do exist, there has been a paradigm shift as most countries now recognise the need to organise themselves into ecosystems that foster consultation, collaboration and communication among all stakeholders.

Unlike a decade ago where people did not talk about ecosystems, governments need to know that the very first step of overcoming these challenges is to create a policy and physical environment for all stakeholders to fulfill their work.

At the AIMS, we use an ecosystems approach bringing together academia, tech hubs, training centres, public and private investors, as well as industries.

This ecosystem creates a dynamic environment for creating wealth as it is a network of people that know what they are doing and what to expect from each other.

However, this ecosystem needs to move from national to a Pan-African network, where countries can engage with each other efficiently, because regardless of how many Einsteins we have as a continent, we will never be able to transform this continent if we do not tear down the barriers of integration and communication.

It is also important to make policies that are simple, implementable and hasten processes. Nonetheless, young scientists must also know that it takes time to move from an idea to industrialisation, but there are no shortcuts.

Some African countries are embroiled in political crisis. What should be done to ensure that they are not left behind in the coming revolution?

I see two groups of countries in Africa: Least Developed Countries and post-conflict countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, which may argue that their priorities are peace, clean water and food.

Yes, theirs are valid priorities, but we must intertwine these with technological advancement. If you were to feed your people first, for example, you need agricultural technology. We, therefore, need a multipronged approach to development.

What are the challenges of using scientific breakthroughs from developing regions such as Africa?

Africa’s contribution to global research is less than one per cent, but there is a huge hidden reality in that percentage. Twenty years ago, nobody was talking about research coming out of Africa. We only talked about scientists from Africa who were living and doing research abroad.

In the past 12-15 years, Africa’s research base has more than tripled. Yes, at one per cent, this [level of contribution] raises concerns.

But when you realise that no other region has even tripled its research output in just one decade, it tells you a couple of things.

First, we are not hiding the challenges we face; and second, if you see the quality in that one per cent, there has been a major shift. If Africa can maintain and/or quadruple this output every decade, just imagine where we will be five decades from now.

Will AIMS spread out beyond the six nations it operates in?

We have a strategy of expanding to more countries but not mere expansion at the expense of quality of service offered.