A move toward ‘Corporate Scientific Responsibility’?: business and science in Africa

As Davos comes to a close, I think it’s a useful time to reflect once more on the role of the business community in driving Africa’s scientific and technological progress.

This is a personal passion of mine, as I strongly believe there has been a damaging disconnect between the scientific and private sectors in past decades, and that it needs to be a focus point in the next year.

Whether in commodities, manufacturing or services, businesses in Africa have long found the skills they need whatever way they can.

Too often, this means spending money on expensive expats or international structures that focus on taking value away from the continent, rather than investment in training or long-term skills development strategies in Africa.

At the same time, there have been twenty years of disinvestment in higher education on the continent. As a result, many academics have been cut adrift from the needs of industry, pursuing their own research and following the wishes of international funding bodies.

Even as economies have grown – and in some cases boomed – academic communities have often remained isolated from the business world, when they should actually be key partners.

As the African Economic Outlook pointed out last year, “Young Africans are now confronted with a university system which has traditionally been focused on educating for public sector employment, with little regard for the needs of the private sector”. This has led to a massive misalignment in the production of relevant skills.

Take agriculture, one of the most prominent and important industries across Africa. The sector is the largest employer, contributing over 13% to the continent’s GDP. Yet, only 2% of students study it at university, which is roughly the same level as Europe, where agriculture makes up only 1.4% of GDP.

Why is this the case? Ultimately, and I speak as a businessman not a scientist, it’s because investing in skills of this nature is too expensive and time consuming for both businesses and governments.

In Mauritius, often cited as a leading environment for businesses, companies are required to contribute two per cent of their yearly profits to corporate social responsibility projects.

However, Dhanjay Jhurry, the head of the Mauritian Centre for Biomedical and Biomaterials Research, is now arguing that a portion of this money should be devoted to scientific development. When Jhurry spoke to SciDev.Net about his plans, he noted, “This concept is novel and has not been used anywhere else in the world. Mauritius could champion this idea and demonstrate intellectual creativity.”

‘Corporate scientific responsibility’ is a principle that I believe deserves closer attention, and it’s one that I will be taking to governments around the continent as we continue our campaigning and advocacy work at the PEI.

We need to be creative in our thinking about connecting science and business in Africa, and I support any idea with that as a goal.

Of course, concepts of this nature will in no way cover the overall shortfall in R&D spending or paper over the other cracks in academia or indeed the broader skills shortages that are impacting our continent.

Yet anything that can lead to a closer working relationship between the two communities is greatly welcome.

As I continue to identify the future African Business Champions for Science along with our partners at the World Bank, I will be promoting similar notions that can help forge links across sectors. At the PEI, we welcome partnerships or ideas drawn from experience to help us in this cause.

One thought on “A move toward ‘Corporate Scientific Responsibility’?: business and science in Africa

  1. When I came up with the idea of a corporate scientific responsibility, I thought I convince the Govt. of Mauritius to incite private sector invest in research and innovation. As you mentioned, private sector in Mauritius have to contribute 2% of their profits to the Corporate Social Responsibility Scheme. The list of areas eligible for CSR fund is defined by Govt and covers education, poverty alleviation, social projects, etc. Unfortunately science and research is not one of them. My country spends only 0.4% of GDP on R&D&I while private sector investment is almost negligible. In most developed countries, private sector contribution is well above that of Govt. If Mauritius is to develop an innovation-based economy, it has to get private sector on board. The proposed Corporate Scientific Responsibility is a way to encourage private sector contribution into R&D&I. Part of the current 2% CSR could be used to fuel research. The good point is that many CEOs of big companies in Mauritius are in favour of the idea.

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