ACCRA – With governments increasingly recognizing the role that Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) plays in national development, universities and other institutions of higher learning in Africa have been tasked to come up with innovative solutions that will drive the developmental aspirations of the continent.
Particularly, the higher education sector could be a key driver for change to help the continent achieve targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2063—the African Union’s blueprint to achieve inclusive social and economic development.
This was the call echoed at the recently concluded annual meeting of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RFORUM) held at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana.
In its Agenda 2063, the AU is calling for the harmonization and strengthening of the quality of higher education in Africa, to make it both locally relevant and globally competitive.
In a keynote address, Dr Brian Mushimba, Zambia’s Minister for Higher Education noted that although higher education is critical in developing the human capital of the continent, most countries have not invested in promoting technical skills that could provide self-employment for the youth.
“Africa’s success to meet the SDGs will depend on commitments on disruptive innovation and knowledge. The challenge is that we are still lagging behind in application of innovative skills,” said Dr Mushimba.
He explained that improving infrastructure for research and innovation will help expose young people to skills development and opportunities.
But the lack of funding for research and development continues to hamper innovation on the African continent.
In 2006 for instance, African heads of State made commitments to raise their national gross expenditure on research and development to at least 1 per cent of the GDP by 2025, in order to increase innovation, productivity and economic growth. Current expenditure on research and development on the continent, as a proportion of GDP is 0.5 per cent, compared to the world average of 2.2 per cent, according to a policy brief from the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
So far, according to the Commission, only Malawi, Kenya, South Africa and Tunisia which are spending more than 0.7 per cent of their GDP on research and development are making efforts to attain the targets set in 2006.
“It comes down to the issue of incentives and creating the environment for research to thrive. For universities, the opportunity for research often comes through studies that rarely tackle national development issues,” said Prof. Aiah Gbakina, the Minister for Technical and Higher Education in Sierra Leone.
He noted that African countries need to take Science, Technology and innovation seriously if they are to benefit from the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR).
“Collaboration between universities is also critical for us to enhance research on the continent. It will be unfortunate for the fourth industrial revolution to pass us by,” he said.
Experts also noted that deliberate policies need to be put in place to increase the number of females in the field of science and innovation, as they remain underrepresented across the continent.
Currently, just about 35 per cent of all the continent’s students who are enrolled for STEM–Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related fields are females.
Prof. Mary Okwakol, the chairperson of the Forum of African Women Vice-Chancellors (FAWoVC) and head of Uganda’s National Council for Higher Education said one of the reasons the forum was formed was to be able to address gender gaps that still exist in science generally.
“Female vice-chancellors are well placed to inspire and mentor upcoming female staff and students to pursue careers in science and technology, and to provide advise on how to overcome challenges faced by female scientists and managers,” said Prof. Okwakol.
“They are also well placed to influence policies within the universities we well as national policies for female scientists to ascent the Science. Technology and Innovation career ladder,” she added.
Busitema, a science-based public university in Uganda, according to Prof. Okwakol is currently leading a project in four countries of Uganda, Mali, Sudan and Mozambique, on how to strengthen and promote gender-inclusive participation in STI.
The project aims to identify the current capacity gaps, challenges and opportunities and how to increase women’s participation in science.