Embrace the hustle: African universities can make a real impact on the continent

Academic research findings can promote entrepreneurship, innovation, create new jobs, products and services that address all Africa’s citizens needs

22 November 2022 - 20:39


COPING MECHANISM COP27, the UN climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, focused on how the world's 4-billion people need to adapt to climate change by 2030.

Image: Emilie Madi/Reuters

'No-one is rich enough to buy yesterday. But if you hustle hard, tomorrow could be yours.' With Africa Universities’ Day being celebrated across our continent this month,these words of Africa’s first Nobel laureate for Literature, Wole Soyinka, carry a profound message for African higher education institutions.

Researchers and thought leaders from our continent have over decades been relentless in their quest to take up spaces in global academia and make their voices heard. The hustle has paid off, and the tide is turning.

In recent days, Africa has hosted momentous scientific events that underline the international recognition of African thought-leadership. More importantly, they foster transcontinental collaboration in science for development with a view to rebuild better after the Covid-19 pandemic and to exchangeknow-how on some of the world’s most protracted challenges:

The Nobel Symposia in Africa, in partnership with Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) and Stellenbosch University (SU), is a first in Africa, which seeks to celebrate science and share breakthroughs with SA and the African continent’s scholarly, public and private sectors, in conversation with world-renowned scientists and game changers.

The European Guild of Research Intensive Universities has engaged with Africa Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) to jointly request yearly investment of €1bn (R17.8bn) in African research universities by the AU and the EU. It is a progressive step towards the renewed Africa-EU partnership. The work being done here is necessary to address the profound demographic, social and environmental changes facing both continents.

The recent COP27 in Egypt, a UN Initiative on Climate Change, focused on how the world’s 4-billion people need to adapt to climate change by 2030. African research leaders play a significant role. For example, the School for Climate Studies at SU has made strong developments in collaboration with the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate and leading African researchers and policymakers on Africa’s climate-related concerns relating to climate change; and building the scientific intellectual capacity to allow the school to lead in areas of carbon dioxide removal and climate management.

These follow on the heels of African scientists taking the lead in pathogen genomics surveillance. The work of Prof Tulio de Oliveira at Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) is focused on enhanced biomedical discovery, improved treatment and diagnosis, and better vaccine development to prevent human disease, and has the potential to lead global research in this field and generate significant economic opportunities for Africa. CERI and the Biomedical Research Institute at SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences is geared to train African scientists in cutting-edge genomics, bioinformatics, big data and artificial intelligence techniques to support Africa’s scientific advances.

With the detection of the Omicron variant, we showed the world Africa is capable of practising world-class science.

According to research conducted by the World Bank, in 2020, a child born in a sub-Saharan country could expect to achieve only 40% of their future productivity if she were to enjoy complete education and full health.

What is required now is collaboration across institutions nationally, internationally, transcontinentally with African research-focused institutions playing a pivotal role as reliable science partners. Research collaboration has become an important component of science, technology and innovation internationally and substantial resources are allocated by governments (for example, SA, the European Commission and the US) for this objective.

This should be emboldened by knowledge exchange and Open Science. Open Science is the movement to make research, and its dissemination, accessible to all members of society. The sharing and ease of access increases efficiency and quality of research, expands innovation and escalates collaboration. My view, however, is that it be practised with the intention to include African universities as equal partners with equal expertise, skills and capabilities. Too often, we search for the answers from our European and American partners before looking inside our own borders. While I do not discount that we need international support, that we value international support, I believe we should be looking for that support by partnering with them rather than co-operating.

Great examples of how knowledge is being shared collaboratively and making a positive impact comes from the introduction of Centres of Excellence (CoEs) at SU (and other leading universities in Africa).

The launch of the five CoEs established by the AU Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), which specialises in different interconnecting themes: 1. Climate resilience; 2. Rural resources and food systems; 3. Science, technology and innovation (STI); 4. Human capital and institutions; and 5. Supply chain and logistics.

Though being new, the AUDA-NEPAD CoE in STI is doing exciting work already regarding implementing real-world change, especially regarding health care and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) CoEs are meant to be focal points for aggregating world-class researchers from member universities to collaborate in priority research areas while providing opportunities for graduate students to work with the researchers. The CoE is therefore an assembly point for good and committed researchers and students interesting in cutting-edge work.

These serve as practical examples of knowledge sharing to uplift Africa and solve its challenges.

Yet, with the hustle to take our rightful place in the global thought arenas now making headway, we should remember the real hustle to own tomorrow: creating scientific programmes that help resolve unemployment, poverty, inequality and rampant corruption; transforming Africa’s numerous youth from a demographic liability to a human resource dividend.

According to research conducted by the World Bank, in 2020, a child born in a sub-Saharan country could expect to achieve only 40% of their future productivity if they were to enjoy complete education and full health. To prevent a dependencyon outsiders, building capacity within our communities would encourage locals to act on local issues themselves. Capacity building fosters ownership and empowerment to gain greater control of the future. The same thinking should be applied to institutions of higher education.

What are the opportunities and challenges in this regard?

By using the output of academic research, we can promote entrepreneurship, innovation, creating new jobs and new products and services that address the needs of all Africa’s citizens.

Similarly, governments should consider in earnest the recommendations made by think-tanks housing some of the greatest minds who have also invested hours of research into understanding some of the most complex problems then devising solutions to benefit society.

Since universities are neutral institutions with an immense number of specialists, old and young, who can contribute to solving African development problems, universities are in a unique position, compared with other institutions, to perform the role of a development partner and problem solver on the African continent.

The UN revealed findings predicting Africa will be home to a quarter of the worlds workforce by 2050. If we focus on capacity building, then, technology, innovation, intra-African trade, manufacturing, sustainability, entrepreneurship are exciting opportunities that we can capitalise on to grow our economies and shape a bright future for the continent.

If universities on the continent collaborate, share, strike strategic partnerships for human development, tomorrow will be worth hustling for.

* Prof Wim De Villiers, rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University

News date: 2022-11-22