October 4, 2017, Washington D.C.

It is a pleasure to greet our distinguished Global Challenges Africa research community here in Washington. I accepted the invitation to come because, as a scientist and academic myself, a high priority of my presidency is investment in research for the health and wellbeing of my people and of peoples all over the world. I am particularly privileged to join my colleagues from the African Academy of Sciences, where I am honored to have been named a Fellow in 2012, and AESA, allies in our commitment to move the center of gravity for African science to Africa. Moreover, partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation enables us to tackle big problems with creativity, generosity and courage.

As you know, Africa starts at a deficit. Our continent is home to 15% of global population, but produces only 3% of global GDP while carrying 25% of global disease burden. Africa accounts for just 2% of world research output, 1.3% of research spending and zero-point-one percent of patents.

The challenges are fundamental, starting with public education, especially in rural communities, which tends to teach memorization more than deep, independent analysis and thinking. This limits the potential of students for creativity and entrepreneurship. On a macroeconomic level, we are persistently dependent on short-term aid, undermining the obligation of our own governments to create the right conditions to attract private investment and venture capital. This in turn dilutes our ability to set our own agenda and take control of, and fully profit from, our own economy.

The role of governments is unique in addressing major disease pandemics and preventing future ones. Only they have direct access to the magnitude of funding required and the policy apparatus necessary to ensure intervention and preparedness. Correspondingly, African Union nations have pledged 1% of GDP to Research & Development, part of the UN’s vision for Africa’s Sustainable Developments Goals 2030. This aspirational goal validates the belief that investment in Africa by Africa herself is essential to long term prosperity.

One particular responsibility that falls traditionally to governments is basic research – untargeted, fundamental research on which big advancements are often based. Pharmaceutical companies, whose mission is to create wealth by preventing and treating disease, cannot generally justify curiosity-driven research. Yet advancements against disease are often dependent on just this. For example, a study revealed that of ten broadly-used clinical advancements for cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, such as open-heart surgery and drug treatment of hypertension, 42% of the conceptual steps to the treatment were from basic research in biochemistry, endocrinology, physiology, and so forth. Similarly, recombinant DNA tools, developed from basic structural discoveries of DNA, enable much greater understanding of bacteria and viruses; nuclear magnetic resonance imaging dramatically improves diagnostics. All these advancements were based on untargeted research resulting from government investment in basic science. 

Governments can also use their influence to attract private sources to partner with them, as they did in 2016 when $459 million was raised from public and private sources to tackle Ebola.

The tech industry offers a model of how Africa can become a global innovation leader. Ninety-six percent of Kenyan households use the mobile money platform created in the country, Mpesa. They use it to buy everything from bananas in the marketplace to software for their PCs. Twenty-eight billion dollars of goods and services transited through Mpesa in 2015, equivalent to 44% of the country’s GDP. This makes Kenya first in the world -- not just on the Continent -- in penetration of mobile money transfer technology. And Africa is positioned to continue to lead tech entrepreneurship, as home to the youngest population of any continent on Earth. According to the World Economic Forum, in the ten youngest African countries, the median age is between just 14 and 18. By 2034, Africa will be home to the world’s largest number of working-age adults. The World Bank estimates that this demographic dividend could generate 11-15% GDP growth over the next twenty years.

Paradoxically, one factor that positions us to succeed is that in many industries, we have little or no legacy. This relative lack of robust infrastructure and vested financial interest means little resistance to and greater agency for Africa to leapfrog to better solutions. 

A notable model to create a research infrastructure that retains and attracts high-quality research capacity in Africa is the partnership of The Wellcome Trust and AESA known as DELTAS Africa. It invests $100 million over five years to establish and sustain eleven world-class research laboratories in seven countries across the Continent. They cover the translational spectrum, from basic cell biology in Ghana to mental health research development in Zimbabwe. In a single year, DELTAS labs have attracted over 220 researchers at the Masters level and above, and earned almost $19 million in additional research support.  

Shining examples of world-class innovation in Africa are also emerging from technology incubators, in cities from Kigali to Harare to Lagos. Venture capital funding of African tech startups increased by a factor of 10 in just two years, from $41 million in 2012 to $414 million in 2014, and is projected to reach $600 million by next year. 

Telecommunications is a prominent example of our technological leadership. In 2006, according to The Economist, there were fewer than 13 million landlines and 130 million subscriptions to mobile phones in all of Africa. Today, over a billion of the Continent’s 1.2 billion people have access to mobile phones, which serve as a platform for the delivery of services. The GSMA, an international telecommunications trade body, claims that for every 10% increase in phone penetration in poor countries, productivity improves by more than 4%, and that doubling mobile-data usage increases annual growth in GDP per person by half a percentage point. 

Life scientists and biomedical researchers can apply similar strategies to our work. This is the premise of CARI, the Coalition for African Research and Innovation. CARI will be an important driver of African science in the coming years. With seed funding from the Wellcome Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the NIH, CARI is based on the premise that world-class, pan-African science and innovation can and will be led by Africans, in Africa, with priorities set by Africa, for Africa. It is gathering public and private investment in basic scientific research and R&D to build a dramatically scaled-up infrastructure for science. It also advocates for the policy and governance conditions that enable Africa to claim her rightful place as a global driver of prosperity.

Every step in the research ladder must be reinforced. For example, world-class post-doctoral fellowships in African laboratories are virtually nonexistent, forcing our new PhDs who aspire to a research career to train overseas. Many never return professionally, which is their loss, and Africa’s loss. African research universities must serve as training incubators to set up a virtuous cycle of highly-trained researchers who can in turn provide guidance and practical training to graduate students and post-docs

Our wellbeing is also critically dependent on how we manage climate change. Our research investment choices sit squarely at the crossroads of the environment and the economy. Economic modelling of the impact of climate change on Africa predicts mean average global temperature rise of 1.5°C by 2040, with costs equivalent to 1.7% of Africa’s GDP. As the mean temperature rises 2.2°C by 2060, economic costs increase to the equivalent of 3.4%. By the end of the century, with a mean temperature rise of 4.1°C, the economic costs are equivalent to just under 10% of the Continent’s GDP.

We must look beyond fossil fuels and the extractive industries to develop renewable resources to curb climate change and ensure sustainable economic development. Think about the potential of our oceans as a source of food and energy and incubator for biodiversity. The oceans are home to about 2 million species, from the largest animal that has ever lived to the tiniest bacterium. Marine biodiversity far outweighs that on land. Oceans cover 71% of our planet’s surface, are a life-support system for Earth and provide more than half of the oxygen we breathe. They are central in the planetary water cycle that produces rain and snow, and nourish more than 1 billion people with their primary source of animal protein.

The oceans also regulate the global climate; mediate temperature, and drive the weather, determining rainfall, droughts and floods. They are the world’s largest store of carbon: an estimated 83% of the global carbon cycle is circulated through marine waters.

Africa’s flora and fauna is a similar source of natural wealth. I recently wrote an article published in Nature to underscore how our plants and animals can be a source of big human and financial dividends. Today, 60% of commercially available drugs are based on molecules derived from natural sources. As an organic chemist and biodiversity scientist, I find it significant that while about 25% of all plant genetic resources reside in Africa, just 83 of the 1,100 plant-derived drugs marketed globally are synthesized from African species. On our continent, 45,000 plant species are unexplored for their potential to serve as the molecular basis of pharmaceuticals. And African species are disappearing at almost twice the global rate, driven by climate change, habitat loss and development. 

Mauritius, by any standard, is tiny. It is an island country of 1.3 million inhabitants 680 miles East of Madagascar. And even though Mauritius and nearby islands are designated as biodiversity hotspots, almost 100 species have become extinct since the arrival of people in the seventeenth century, and only 2% of the native forest remains. 

Yet with the right priorities, small countries can punch above their weight. A financial commitment to drug development is necessary but not sufficient. It also requires the right technical, legal, regulatory and cultural conditions to encourage research investment. To this end, I helped found what is now the Centre International de Dévelopement Pharmaceutique, which searches for ingredients from our local species with the potential for development.

While African nations are a rich and growing source of fossil resources, home to six of the top ten global discoveries in the oil and gas sector in 2013, alternatives to extractive industry sources of energy are essential for a sustained African economy. A recipe from the San people of southern Africa has led to standardized extracts of the plantSceletium tortuosum to be tested for their tranquillizing properties. An extract of the hoodia cactus-like plant, also long used by the San to control hunger, has been explored as an appetite suppressant by Pfizer and Unilever. Other extracts of African plants — including nuts of the shea tree and seed oil of the baobab -- are used commercially in skin and beauty products. 

Our natural world has also inspired commercial products using biomimicry, such as vertical haulers imitating inchworms, spider-mimicking robots developed for search and rescue, and prosthetic limbs modeled on cephalopod tentacles. 

All this opportunity is leveraged perhaps most critically at the point of development known as the ‘valley of death’, the transition from lab bench to marketplace. At this critical juncture, significant resources are necessary to overcome the research, regulatory, economic, clinical, legal and other barriers to drug development, such as they did in containing the Ebola outbreak before it became a global scourge. 

Addressing these challenges involves many moving parts. Our health and prosperity sit at the nexus of not just the interdependent, transdisciplinary nature of scientific research, but in a broader context, at the intersection of nutrition, health, agriculture, environment, governance and the economy. It requires sustained operational funding and capital support and the capacity to engage successfully with funders, governments, policy makers, communities and other stakeholders.

Only significant investment in all these elements – public-private investment in basic and applied research, exploiting sustainable resources, creating the legal, regulatory and policy conditions to encourage research and development, and the right education and training for the next generation of scientists here on the Continent -- will create a sustainable research and innovation environment that leads to less disease, more prosperity and more independence in Africa.   

Compared to all that, our financial goal seems easy: CARI’s founders are committed to raising $X by [year.] This represents an investment from both the public and private sectors, a manifestation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, a master plan for ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

My own small country of Mauritius provides a proof-of-principle that intelligent, strategic investment can yield important returns. The challenge is not easy: reaching it depends on the contributions of highly-skilled individuals and ambitious initiatives such as CARI. But it can be done, because it must be done. Our ability to create a sustained future for ourselves isn’t optional: it’s existential. There’s an African proverb that says, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now." Bring your seedlings and your shovels, and we will plant that tree together.