On Friday, August 1st, Mr. Melvin Foote and Dr. Nkem Khumbah published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing persuasively that scientific and technological progress is the key to African development. In their words:
“Scientific and technological advancement will help eradicate poverty and promote homegrown economic development by providing Africa with the tools to address its own challenges and expand its industrial productivity.”
In the days before the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah encouraged the U.S. Government to embrace “a science-led agenda in Africa” by pairing American higher education institutions, scientific research centers and tech entrepreneurs with African counterparts to spur economic growth and reduce dependence on aid.
Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah’s vision is one that USAID fully supports and has already taken significant steps to catalyze. Today, Africans are the architects of their development, not just beneficiaries. This new model for development focuses on partnerships — with African governments, businesses, universities and civil society.
Building lasting partnerships with African leaders, thinkers, entrepreneurs and innovators is at the core of USAID’s approach, which seeks to end extreme poverty by investing in Africa’s greatest resource: its people. Many of our newest initiatives reflect not only our renewed commitment to science and technology, but the central importance Africans play in global affairs throughout the 21st century.
USAID is constantly seeking new African partners in an effort to support great ideas from people all over the continent. Under efforts like USAID’s new Global Development Lab, which brings together diverse partners to discover, test and scale new solutions to chronic development challenges, we have identified 200 promising innovations that are currently being tested and evaluated.
Many of these solutions come from developing country entrepreneurs, including African entrepreneurs. A prescription medication verification and tracking system invented by Sproxil, a Kenya-based company (and USAID partner) has reached over 2 million customers in Ghana, Nigeria and East Africa by placing scratch cards on packs of medication. The scratch card reveals a numerical code, and when texted to a Sproxil-provided phone number, will verify whether the drug is genuine or fake. Dozens of similar innovations that have the potential to save millions of lives are currently being tested in Africa, including inexpensive chlorine dispensers in Uganda, Kenya and Malawi and stickers to encourage passengers to urge bus drivers in Kenya to slow down, thereby reducing traffic accidents and related deaths.
Power Africa is another example of USAID’s new model in action. Through the U.S. Government’s partnerships with African governments, private investors, developers and others, not only is Power Africa saving lives by, for example, bringing electricity to a rural clinic, but it is also spurring long-term growth by scaling new technologies, generating new jobs, and reducing the risks for foreign investment.
Power Africa may have been conceived by the U.S. Government, but the private sector has since taken the lead — the U.S. Government commitment of $7 billion in financing and loan guarantees has given both international and African businesses the confidence to invest in Africa’s emerging electricity sector to the tune of more than $20 billion to date.
As Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah note, it is critical to train the next generation of Africans in science and engineering. USAID supports a number of efforts to this end currently, and is hoping to do more in the near future. In November 2012, USAID and seven universities launched the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) with the goal of bringing their intellectual power and enthusiasm closer to real-time development innovations in the field. This network currently collaborates with labs at four African universities to support studies of how communities respond to changing conditions such as urbanization, changes in local climate, and post-war recovery.
In addition, members of the network collaborate with and support existing S&T based African-led enterprises and emergent community led technology development. The Higher Education for Development (HED) program has supported dozens of partnerships between U.S. universities and African peer institutions. These partnerships typically last years beyond the U.S. investment and result in broad and deep connections between the U.S. and Africa.
Similarly, the Research and Innovation Fellowships (RI Fellowships) program and Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) program foster science and engineering partnerships on the individual level. RI Fellowships currently supports more than 60 African scientists to collaborate with U.S. fellows in applying their scientific and technological expertise to local development challenges. The PEER program funds scientists who see problems in their midst to do the in-depth research required for creative solutions, while simultaneously expanding research ecosystems in the developing world.
One hundred and fourteen PEER scientists around the world tackle local challenges with tenacity and intellectual vigor, guiding the local development agenda and building an academic foundation for progress. The recent 2014 PEER awardees’ meeting brought 39 PEER awardees from 10 African countries to Arusha, Tanzania to build new connections. As part of the conference, the Vice President of Tanzania, His Excellency Mohamed Bilal, delivered the keynote address in which he said, “Science, engineering and technology education in Sub Saharan Africa holds the key to unlocking the continent’s great potential that could propel sustainable growth and development.”
Mr. Foote and Dr. Khumbah are right on the mark that a new model of development for Africa must be inclusive, grounded in the latest scientific and technological advancements, and focused on African priorities. Working with counterparts across Africa is the best way to catalyze the technological and scientific change that will be necessary to make the continent’s economic growth sustainable far into the future. Great ideas backed by 21st century science and technology – many of them home-grown in Africa – are the surest path to lifting hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty for good.