New Push to Bolster Africa’s Science Economy

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Efforts are underway to build Africa's science base and develop a knowledge-and-innovation-led economy that will retain and attract top African talent.

Seth Onyango, bird story agency

A new fund is stirring up Africa's science scene as the continent races to reverse the tide of brain drain that has seen it lose some of its top talents to rich economies.

Last month, 44 early-to-mid-career researchers across 38 African countries were awarded five-year fellowships of up to 500,000 US dollars each, to facilitate independent research teams and deliver cutting-edge research.

This comes as Africa continues to witness reverse migration as skilled workers, who left the continent in search of greener pastures in North America and Europe, return home to work and invest.

Under the auspices of the African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence (ARISE), the fellowship is expected to gradually create an ecosystem that facilitates investment in science and technology.

ARISE is funded by the European Union and the African Union and implemented by the African Academy of Sciences (AAS).

Its fellowships are aimed at building the "capacity of African researchers, particularly early-career scientists, to deliver cutting-edge research in contribution to the efforts being made towards the transformation of Africa into a knowledge-based and innovation-led continent."

The new initiative is seen as one of the small but steady steps in building Africa's research capacity, which currently trails behind most of the world.

Brookings Institute figures show Africa contributes just 2 per cent of the world research output, accounts for only 1.3 per cent of research spending, and produces 0.1 per cent of all patents.

This could change as governments commit more funds to research and development (R&D).

A renewed focus on Africa's R&D space comes on the back of the coronavirus pandemic which highlighted the importance of African solutions.

According to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), on average, Africa spends just 0.45 per cent of its GDP on research and development, which is significantly less than the global average of 1.7 per cent and the African Union’s target of 1 per cent. Also, Africa has less than 100 researchers per million people.

"This is over 10 times less than the global average of 1100 researchers per million people and perpetuates significant obstacles for many promising African researchers to progress in their work, integrate into the global research communities and to deliver the necessary results for economic and societal progress on the African continent," ARISE programme manager, Obed Ogega, told RSC's Chemistry World.

"The ARISE pilot programme is focused on kick-starting an ambitious push to strengthen Africa’s science base through a novel instrument to support scientific excellence. This is a crucial effort towards a more attractive and inclusive continent for bright minds, including the diaspora returning to Africa."

Africa is getting better

With Africa’s rising economy and decreasing conflicts, the United Nations argues that African immigrants are increasingly finding incentives to return home.

A report by a pan-African private equity firm, Jacana Partners, found that nearly 70 per cent of African MBA students in the top US and European schools planned to return home after graduation.

Similarly, an International Organisation for Migrants (IOM) report found that the same percentage of East African migrants – mainly Ugandans, Kenyans and Tanzanians – in the United Kingdom were willing to return home permanently.

“The continent’s political leaders also appear to have open arms to receive the returning Africans. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – the African Union’s economic development organ – even created an African diaspora programme that it says is strategically important to Africa,” the UN said.

While improving African economies and a decrease in civil conflicts may be major drivers of a reverse brain drain, the going-back-home phenomenon also appears to be driven by the political and social developments in developed economies.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the continent’s labour market was characterised by the brain drain phenomenon, where skilled Africans went abroad in search of better life and opportunities in countries where jobs and livelihoods were more secure, and where they were well-received.

Today, however, the growth in jingoistic behaviour in many developed nations and an apparent rise in racist attitudes is resulting in Africans reconsidering moves away from home. Also, more people of African origin are returning to, or even settling on, the continent, citing racism, extremism and the pursuit of "belonging" as their reasons.

One African program is even leveraging on this trend with an initiative in Ghana – started in 2019 to mark 400 years since the first documented slave ship from Africa landed in the Americas – actively encouraging African Americans to "return home".

According to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), return migration helps enrich the skills sets in the home country, and even if only a limited number of the highly skilled return, they help raise the stock of human capital in origin countries.

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