“Sustaining a rising Africa through Science, Technology and Innovation”


October 4, 2017, Washington D.C.

It is an honor and privilege to deliver this welcoming keynote address to our distinguished Global Challenges Africa research community. 

This is the case on more than one level. First and most important, as a scientist and academic myself, a very high priority of my presidency, indeed of my country, is to continue to invest in research for the health and wellbeing of my people and of peoples all over the world. Second, my colleagues here from the African Academy of Sciences, where I am honored to have been named a Fellow in 2012, and AESA, are allies in our common fight to move the center of gravity for African science to Africa. And finally, the association with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reinforces our shared determination to tackle big, important problems with creativity, generosity and courage.

As you know, Africa is at a disadvantage in direct investment in science, health and technology. The Continent is home to 15% of global population, but it produces only 3% of global GDP and carries 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 start early in life. Our public education tends to rote learning instead of encouraging independent analysis, rewarding originality and cultivating creativity. Conformity is the norm: questioning authority in school is considered insubordinate. The aspirations of parents for their children are still understandably but tragically limited: when asked about hopes for their offspring, the greatest dream of many African mothers and fathers is that they will see their sons and daughters situated in a “safe” government job, discouraging them from risk-taking and frustrating their potential for  entrepreneurship. 

Our governments suffer from their legacies of colonialism, whereby support is too often driven by the interests of donor countries. This undermines our drive to seek and attract real investment capital in enterprise that has the potential to provide sustainable returns to the Continent. As long as external parties are determining our investment priorities and mechanisms, we in Africa will never be able to fully build our own economic destiny.

But there are encouraging factors, as well. 

Africa has the youngest population of any continent on earth, with, according to the World Economic Forum, a median age among the ten youngest countries on the Continent ranging from just 14 to 18. By 2034, Africa will be home to the world’s largest number of working-age adults. The World Bank estimates that 11-15% GDP growth over the next twenty years will be attributable to this “youth dividend.”

As we explore the best strategies to build research and development for Africa’s health and wellbeing, and to in turn become a major driver of its economic prosperity, we can look to technology innovation as a nascent success story. 

M-KOPA is an example of the sort of innovation that is already changing the face of Africa, bringing solar energy to poor and rural communities. Access to energy is crucial to raising fundamental living standards: light after sundown enables children to study and parents to produce handwork that contributes to family income. The ability to maintain a charged mobile phone is a gateway for a family not just to communication, but to services being increasingly delivered through phones: education, financial services, even health care. Indeed, it is estimated 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. 

M-KOPA is an energy start-up built on the mobile money platform MPesa, enabling families to purchase clean home energy in payments as small as 50 cents. M-KOPA brings solar energy to more than 500 new households every day, totaling over half a million East African homes previously unreached by power lines. Together these families receive over 62.5 million hours of clean solar energy per month through this technology. And as a business enterprise and contributor to the economy, M-KOPA has raised well over $50 million in venture capital, providing fulltime jobs to over 1,000 people and retaining over 1,500 sales agents.  

Paradoxically, a big factor in exemplary technology successes such as M-KOPA is that in many cases, we do not carry the burden of entrenched industries with vested financial interests in business-as-usual: the large number of “unbanked” people leads to mobile-based financial services; the absence of an energy grid in rural communities invites solar energy solutions such as M-KOPA; the absence of investment in telephone lines clears the path for adoption of mobile telephony, and so on. 

This relative lack of legacy provides greater agency to African economies because it minimizes the political and economic barriers to leapfrog to better solutions. The historical lack of investment works to our advantage because it results in great demand for, and little resistance to, innovation: to a better way of doing things. 

This framework provides an essential boost to creating the knowledge base required to participate fully as a global contributor to science and innovation. Anyone who has spent time in many parts of the Continent has felt the momentum shift. There is a level of ambition and a growing culture of excellence and independence as we seize control of our own challenges. 

As a result, Africa is attracting actual capital investment to build industry that is sustainable in the long term, rather than further cultivating a dependence on aid, which by its nature is short term. 

We in this room are however, not primarily technologists, but life scientists and biomedical researchers. In this capacity as scientific researchers, we are positioned to apply similar strategies to our work as do those in the realm of engineering. 

This is the premise of CARI, the Coalition for African Research and Innovation, that has been launched on the Continent at AESA, with the founding support of the Wellcome Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. I am honored to serve as Chair of the CARI Leadership Committee.

I will take some time to tell you about CARI, because it will be a driver of growth in our fields over the next decades in Africa. CARI, to be managed by AESA, is driving a stake in the ground for basic scientific research and R&D on the Continent. 

It seeks to establish the proof of principle that world-class, pan-African science and innovation can and will be led by Africans, in Africa, with priorities set by Africa, for Africa. In this way  I would maintin only in this way -- can Africa claim its rightful place as a global driver of prosperity.

How will CARI contribute to tackling our challenges? By building dramatically scaled-up infrastructure for research, creating the right policy and governance conditions, and turning our orientation inward to our own people at home in Africa

The best-trained, most talented researchers naturally gravitate to environments where their work is leveraged by modern equipment, reliable utilities and sufficient funding. This in turn attracts more talent: success begets success

The premise of CARI is that Africa’s bran drain will be transformed into Africa’s brain gain by creating a research infrastructure that rivals the best in the world, right here at home. 

We must thoughtfully construct a strong foundation to train and retain our best talent, making Africa an inviting home for African research by African and international researchers. This investment will create a virtuous cycle of talent attracting, training and retaining talent in Africa.

Once we build these elements for a sustainable research and innovation environment, it will become the engine that powers our transition to less disease, more prosperity and more independence in Africa. 

These ambitions will require investment in every stage of our research training and infrastructure. At present, most of our promising advanced students seek the opportunity to train overseas. This has the inevitable effect of losing many of them to their adopted homes indefinitely, as well as turning their attention and research focus to the priorities of the countries that host them. We must find a way to offer world-class education and training all the way through the highest levels of post-doctoral fellowship so that our most talented individuals are not obligated to be trained outside of Africa. Moreover, only a serious, long-term investment in research-intensive universities and institutions will provide the stability necessary to retain career scientists and academics here on the Continent.  Good students want to attend a university where there is strong faculty and staff; faculty and staff come and stay when there are world-class students, sufficient funding and reliable infrastructure.   

Furthermore, research training and resources are necessary, but not sufficient. We must also build the capacity to engage successfully with fellow researchers, funders, governments, policy makers, communities and other stakeholders, and to serve as mentors and supervisors for the next generation of scientists in Africa.

Compared to that, our financial ambitions seem almost easy: CARI’s leadership is committed to raising funds 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.

The public part of this investment is manifest in the commitment of African nations to dedicate 1% of their GDP to Research & Development. Although the Continent is far from achieving this, the goal itself validates the belief that investment in Africa by Africa herself is essential to long term prosperity.

The challenge is anything but straightforward. There are many moving parts. Our health and wellbeing sit at the nexus of not just the interdependent, transdisciplinary nature of health research, and our ability and willingness to share our research outcomes openly and transparently, but also of a broader context, at the intersection of nutrition, health, agriculture, environment, governance and the economy.

I recently explored a piece of that broader context in an article that I wrote in Nature. In it, I discussed the potential, largely unrealized to-date, to develop pharmaceuticals based on indigenous African plants. It may provide a useful illustration of how intelligent investment in Africa’s capacity for research and development promises to return 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 see great significance in this fact, especially when we consider that 25% of all plant genetic resources reside in Africa. 

Yet, of the 1,100 drugs marketed globally that are derived from plants, only 83 are synthesized from African species. 

We have left 45,000 plant species unexplored for their potential to serve as the molecular basis of pharmaceuticals and undeveloped to potentially alleviate human suffering and drive economic prosperity for Africa. 

Moreover, we are in a race against time: species are disappearing fast, because of climate change, habitat loss, development and other pressures. The extinction rate of plant species on the Continent is almost twice the global average. And exploiting opportunities to develop drugs also requires technical, legal, regulatory and cultural conditions to enable and nurture development. 

Complicating matters, traditional information about the uses of plants is usually transmitted orally rather than catalogued and indexed formally, and recipes are considered trade and family secrets and so are unlikely to be shared. As the African proverb says, an elderly person’s death can be like a library burning to the ground. For too long, we have underestimated and undervalued the insight into our flora and fauna contained in this lore.

Other developing countries are tackling this challenge. India established a Ministry dedicated to development of indigenous medical plants and systems; China works with the World Health Organization to document, in English, species commonly used in Eastern medicine.

China and India are of course huge countries, and by comparison – indeed, by any standard -- my own island country of Mauritius is tiny. It is an archipelago of 1.3 million inhabitants, lying 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, we can set an example of what even a very small country can do it if recognizes the potential of scientific research and development. To this end, I helped found what is now the Centre International de Dévelopement Pharmaceutique, which searches out innovative ingredients from our local species and brings them up to internationally recognized standards for development.  

There are translational successes that have enabled basic findings to be developed into marketable products, using native flora such as extracts of the plant Sceletium tortuosum being tested as a tranquilizer; hoodia plants as an appetite suppressant, and shea tree nuts and baobab oil are already being marketed profitably for skin care products. 

My own small country of Mauritius provides the proof-of-principle that intelligent, strategic investment can yield important returns. The challenge is not easy, and reaching it depends on the contributions of our most highly-skilled individuals, enabled by 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. It may seem overwhelming, but there’s an African proverb that says, “if you wish to move mountains tomorrow, you must start by lifting stones today.” Those dedicated to building a thriving, self-sustaining Africa, both here in this room and on our beloved Continent, are invited to bring your stones, so that we can move mountains together.