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Transforming Africa with science and technology?

Brigitte OsterathFebruary 25, 2016

What does it take to convert Africa into a first-class research destination which knows how to tackle its problems? Scientists and policymakers have been deliberating at a major science conference in Washington DC.

Planet Rackus Entwicklerfirma in Kenia
Image: Reuters

Patrick Awuah grew up in Ghana, then went to college in the United States and worked at Microsoft. But when his first child was born, he felt he should go back to Africa.

"I thought that if I started a college that would focus on educating ethical entrepreneurial leaders, people who are problem solvers, who care about society, that we can change the continent."

In 1999, he took a step towards realizing that dream when he founded Ashesi University, a private college in Accra, Ghana. It offers four-year bachelors' courses focussing on computer science, engineering and business administration.

He presented his ideas on transforming Africa at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC in February 2016.

The AAAS is a non-profit organization which seeks "to advance science, engineering and inovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people."

Patrick Awuah from Ashesi University College
Patrick Awuah: 'We can change the continent'Image: DW/B. Osterath

Ashesi's graduates have achieved a lot for Ghana and even for the continent, Patrick proudly told DW: "One of the graduates works in the banking industries and has deployed IT systems that have greatly improved efficiency of banks. Others have built and deployed biometric registry systems so that our election process is more secure."

One student who graduated at the top of her class now runs an orphanage, to which a school is attached, Patrick said. She has introduced computer programing in the school.

"I am very proud of that because it is not the path we thought she was going to go - given her strength, she could have gone to work in any company, she could have started her own company - but she is using science in a very interesting way, and she is changing lives."

Ashesi University College is only of several initiatives that have emerged to strengthen science and technology in Africa.

Another one is AIMS – the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

It has already established five institutes for postgraduates across Africa: in Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania and South Africa. A sixth institute in Rwanda will join the network soon.

AIMS offers masters degrees and PhDs in science. AIMS' president and CEO Thierry Zomahoun told DW that Africa needs to invest in home-grown science and technology professionals.

"We want young African scientists to be able to tackle Africa's and even the world's problems: energy, safety, infrastructure. We want young Africans to be a source of solutions rather than a source of trouble," he said.

AIMS started in 2003. By the end of 2016, it will have had 1000 graduates.

Thierry stresses that a good science education is not only about passing on scientific knowledge. The students also have to learn to be proactive and challenge their lecturers.

A water purification lab in Tansania
Recently, several research projects like this water purification plant in Tanzania have sprung up in AfricaImage: DW/M. Gundlach

"When our students come from the universities, the first shock they have is to be able to talk to their lecturer, to sit down and dine with them, to look at them face to face and to tell them 'I think I disagree' - things you cannot say in a normal traditional academic system."

Aissa Wade is a mathematician and an academic director at AIMS Senegal.

She had to leave her home country, Senegal, after her master's degree, to do her PhD in Europe because there were no opportunities for her in Africa.

This has changed now, Aissa said.

There are also many more female science students than there were when she was studying mathematics.

"When I arrived at AIMS, 30 percent of the students were female. So I thought that this will be a good chance for me to be a role model and show them that they can make it."

Self-esteem, ambition to work hard and a problem-solving mind – those are the things that initiatives like AIMS and Ashesi are conveying.

Ashesi's Patrick Awuah said he has never regretted to have left his well-paid job at Microsoft.

"I have the privilege to see students who have come to my university and their lives have completely changed. I don't think I did anything at Microsoft that matched that."