The business v science disconnect in Africa, Kigali, Rwanda


Alvaro Sobrinho World Bank Rwanda

I had the pleasure of joining the World Bank Forum on Higher Education, Science and Technology in Kigali, Rwanda last week. Rwanda is an impressive country, and my meetings with senior officials there were full of potential for investment and growth.

I left Kigali inspired by the Government’s work on science and technology, particularly regards educational attainment in school and universities, alongside the gender balance in STEM subjects they are working toward.

The World Bank Africa team, as ever led with vision and passion by the esteemed Makhtar Diop, are pursuing an ambitious set of programmes and I was delighted to hear the pledge of doubling the percentage of STEM students in Africa by 2025.

However, there was a missing voice throughout the conference – business. While I spoke as a businessman, this trip again reinforced my long-held view that we must do more to bridge the disconnect between business in Africa and the scientific agenda.

Business has the power to make much of this scientific development agenda real and tangible today, translating research into jobs and investing in technology and new skills programmes. I am now looking forward to working with the World Bank to help bridge this gap, so keep posted!

Extracts from my full speech are below.

“The Business vs. Scientist Perspective on Africa’s science and technology: clash or convergence?”

Your Excellences, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you all and I am absolutely delighted to be here.  I congratulate His Excellency President Kagame and his team, as well as the World Bank in putting this conference together so well.

To me, there is no more important topic than science and technology in Africa. And it’s fantastic to be surrounded today by such passion and expertise. 

For those of you who don’t know, the Planet Earth Institute is a NGO working for our vision of the ‘Scientific Independence of Africa’. It’s a provocative mission, and that is why we chose it. To get people talking about science in Africa.

What does scientific independence mean?

Well, for us, scientific independence means ending the dependency that we believe is causing such a drag on the continent’s rise.

Independence means having science, technology and innovation embedded in our government policies, alongside properly resourced and empowered institutions.  Independence means the ability to produce AND KEEP many more brilliant scientists on our continent. Ultimately, it means Africa’s problems can be solved by African-led solutions.

Alongside our projects, our main focus is campaigning for an African-owned science agenda, and to bring organisations together to collaborate on these issues.  And that collaboration includes one group that has often been missing over the years – the private sector. And that’s why I’m especially delighted to be talking on this subject today.

Having been involved in business and investment all my life, across the African continent and in many different industries, I see the huge importance science and technology plays in creating successful businesses.

Just this morning, I got a call from a team I’m now working with on a new Marina and port in Luanda, as part of our continued transformation in Angola. My team there are a mix of African and European engineers and architects, but every one of them with such incredible talent and skill.

Technical skills like this are very important to business in Africa, able to give returns to investors, governments and societies alike. Only through a science and technology evolution in Africa can we move from consumers to create knowledge.

So why has there been such distance between the private sector and the science and technology agenda in Africa?

Well, in my opinion it is not a conflict or a convergence. In my view, it is more of a disconnect. For too long, science and business were not operating in the same world in Africa.

Now, I’m here to defend business, but let’s be honest. For decades in Africa, businesses, including my own, have been working to create opportunities on the continent.

Whether that was commodities, manufacturing or services, the business race was on to make a product successful and quickly. Business operates for the today, and that meant finding the skills wherever we could, even if they were expensive and international.

At the same time, the last 20 years have seen the academic and scientific communities in Africa burdened by cuts and challenges of their own, and we in this room are well aware of the damning statistics relating to tertiary enrolment and scientific output.

But things are changing, and technology is making more and more possible. Meetings like this prove the point, with the private sector increasingly an equal partner. With millions more Africans coming onto the job market every year it is crucial higher education and training is at the front of the development agenda.

It has been great to see the changes of the last few years in Africa. There are now many business-led and sponsored academic programmes in Africa. And when I meet Vice-Chancellors of our partner universities in Angola, Mozambique and Ghana they always have new private sector partnerships.

And that is what we as a NGO are trying to strive for. More debates like this bringing a wide-range of partners together and more joint-ventures, surrounded by policies that incentivise these moves.

Take Angola, my home, as an example. His Excellency President dos Santos has made science and technology a priority. We are working to promote a number of public private partnerships, and to host scientific forums with leading figures and experts.

In the last year, we have brought a number of scientific delegations from Latin America, Asia and Europe to Angola to help support this international collaboration, and business has been a very important part of that.

Our PhD Centre model now active in Angola and Mozambique is developed to bring about an equal partnership between local private businesses and the university hosts.

Any student in our Centres benefits from both an academic supervisor and also a private sector mentor.

I’m delighted to hear Makhtar speak so passionately and with such knowledge about the role of the private sector in the World Bank’s PhD initiative, and I am looking forward to seeing that valuable programme expand.

So, I am confidant that the mind sets are changing and that business and science are now converging much more. We must really embed these partnerships, alongside other valuable organisations and NGOs, just as the global scientific powerhouses have done.

I look forward to our discussion today and hope to work with many of you in the future, helping bring business and science together for Africa’s long-term and sustainable success.

Thank you.

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