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.