New opportunities in a changing landscape

April 27, 2012

Kathryn Strachan

Kathryn Strachan


African countries are at a turning point, where they have an opportunity to invest in research capacity and ‘leapfrog’ over research institutions in other parts of the world.

This was the optimistic message from Val Snewin, international activities manager for Britain’s Wellcome Trust, who was addressing a session of Forum 2012 on the topic of developing research capacity.

Snewin said that, in light of the recession in Europe and the United States, and set against positive economic growth in Africa, a new opportunity presented itself for African research capability.

Getting fitter: new opportunities are opening up for health research in Africa (Credit: Flickr/Oxfam)

“The world is shifting on its axis here,” she said. “But very few national governments are stepping up and engaging with it. We need political will, and for governments to invest in research capacity, where they can afford it.”

Two examples were Ghana and Tanzania, both of which were showing commitment to creating research and innovation.

Rene Loewensen, of EQUINET in Zimbabwe, said that a changing landscape, in which countries were being encouraged to take charge of their own health research agendas, also brought an opportunity to shift the paradigm of how research is carried out.

Previously the focus had been on building capacity in research institutions in universities, she said. Now there was a need to extend this research to a broader context.

Placing research capacity in the community and in health services would enable it to be more responsive to the needs of both the community and the country.

“It allows us to look at the real world, rather than at theoretical issues,” said Loewensen.

But this new focus on community and multidisciplinary research had also brought new challenges, such as how to keep track of quality in a rapidly changing field.

Yogan Pillay, deputy director general of the South African health department, said that policymakers were increasingly recognising the importance of research, but were now seeking an answer to “how to make it happen”.

The questions they faced were around the implementation of research results, and scaling them up to make a wide impact.

Kathryn Strachan is a freelance health and development journalist working in Johannesburg.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

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Pan-African University controversy continues

April 2, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


I picked up interesting undertones from the first day of the meeting.

It seems the disagreements surrounding the selection of the Pan-African University (PAU) node for the Southern Africa region are far from being over; at least that was the impression I had as Beatrice Njenga of African Union gave  a rundown of the project  to the conference today.

South Africa’s Stellenbosch University had been chosen to host the space sciences centre but there were concerns by other regional countries who claimed they were not consulted — and also that they would have preferred to host a centre on water issues.

Njenga was upbeat that the project was doing well. PAU’s most recent fourth of five centres being set up around the continent by the African Union (AU) was announced on 18 March in Algeria.

Alfred Watkins, executive chairman of Global Innovation Summit had some interesting sentiments on the broader issue of investing in science in Africa.

He lamented widespread inertia when it came to the need for “practical solutions for practical problems,” and added that “vision with no implementation was mere hallucination”.

The same sentiment had been expressed earlier in the morning by Kenya’s Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, Margret Kamar.

“Africa is full of declarations we must now move to action,” she said.

According to a UNESCO report, Sub-Saharan Africa has seen growth in recent years in science and technology, particularly in the areas of internet access due to the explosion in mobile phone use, and I’ll have more to say on that in another blog post.

However, R& D output has remained low across the continent.


Africa: poor but rich

June 29, 2011

Science can change Africa?

Informal settlements (commonly known as shacks) in South Africa do not only mirror poverty, or the government’s struggle to provide basic amenities for its people, they are also a sign of a potentially great resource – they are a recruiting ground for future scientists. This is the view of Barry Green, director of the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) based in South Africa.

Africa's main resource - its people - must be properly trained. Credit: Flickr/US Army Africa

Green said Africa has much potential. But it remains untapped as its main resource – its people – need to be properly trained to define their future.

In its efforts to change this, AIMS has been offering post-graduate study to Africans in mathematical sciences. It is also expanding its learning institutions across the continent.

Science is a formidable force that can improve the fortunes of Africa but it needs to be pursued with relevant policies and support, Ochieng Ogodo, SciDev.Net news editor for Sub-Saharan Africa, told the session.

In terms of innovation Africa is not putting new products on the market. Climate change is already wreaking havoc on the continent and water access was a huge problem.

Ogodo said the solution lay in African home grown science solutions. But, long and hard as the road to scientific emancipation might seem in Africa, the key message from the session was that locally credible research and appropriate policies were critical to turn fortunes of a rich but poor continent.

Munyaradzi Makoni, SciDev.Net contributor in South Africa


Still no silver bullet

June 9, 2011

Tom Wheeler, Image Credit: GSMA

The conference ended last night on a positive note for developing countries. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the board of the mHealth Alliance, told the closing session that the developing world’s patchy healthcare systems make them extra suitable for mHealth applications, which will increasingly depend on services hosted in cyberspace, as opposed to facilities on the ground.

That said, mHealth solutions do not need to be sophisticated to deliver, he added. “It’s all about information, and the network that facilitates the transfer of information. And that information doesn’t have to be ‘zeros’ and ‘ones’. The ability to make a phone call to get someone to take a pregnant mother who is in distress, to a medical facility — there is nothing technologically revolutionary about that. But the impact of that is transformational.”

Personally, I got the feeling that many of the challenges and opportunities that have surfaced during the conference have done so before — and will do so again, at future mobile health meets. “It’s always the same talk,” said a woman I spoke to whose mHealth business had a stall at the exhibition part of the conference.

Another issue was the lack of doctors at a meeting dedicated to healthcare. One speaker on Tuesday commented that although this was a conference about healthcare, all the panelists on the stage at that moment were technology types.

So I leave heartened by what I’ve heard, and the enthusiasm I’ve seen, but wondering when we’ll see the promise of mHealth fulfilled in my own back yard in South Africa. It’s clear that what everybody is waiting and hoping for is a healthcare breakthrough like m-pesa, the mobile banking system that has become hugely successful in Kenya. Something so obviously useful that it can’t help but succeed.

There was no such silver bullet presented at this conference. But given the strong interest from techies and policymakers alike to get mHealth off the ground, this won’t be the last we hear on the subject.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist


The problem with rural energy consumers

November 10, 2010

Rolling out electricity to rural areas is expensive. Credit:Flickr/Dr_neil

Last night at the dinner hosted for researchers at the Wallenberg Centre, at Stellenbosch University, South Africa’s deputy minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom said a target set by his government to give electricity to every household by 2015 was unrealistic.

Since the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 the number of South Africans with access to electricity has increased from 30 per cent to 75 per cent (although reports of the latter figure at the this conference have ranged from 70 per cent to 85 per cent).

But it is the last 25 per cent that will be the hardest to reach, Hanekom said. These are often people in remote villages where connection to the national grid would be very expensive, and thus take longer than most expect.

The situation is even more difficult in the rest of Africa. Just after breakfast this morning, I chanced to meet David Mbah, executive secretary for the Cameroon Academy of Sciences, who told me that rural electrification is a huge challenge in his country.

Mbah said that in his home village of Ashong the government had erected pylons for about 10 kilometres, but there were no electricity cables. Funding, he said, had run out in the government’s electrification plan.

“They came up with the budget, and programmes of action, but for now the programme is stagnant as the government is looking for partners to fund the implementation,” he said.

Munyaradzi Makoni, freelance journalist for SciDev.Net


Don’t forget the jobs!

November 10, 2010

National energy plans should not forget job creation opportunities. Credit: Kuyasa CDM project

Embracing new energy technology without training skilled people to maintain the new gadgets is not the way to go for Africa, South Africa’s science and technology minister, Naledi Pandor, said on Monday night.

“No one has made a provision to repair solar panels when they break down. Skills associated with the positive technology must be made available so that we can confront future problems,” she said.

This morning, Barry Bredenkamp, from the South African National Energy Efficiency Agency, made a similar point.

National energy programmes are fertile ground for job creation, he said. But the South African national energy plan fails to address this issue – something that must be rectified, Bredenkamp said. “In South Africa, and globally, we have a serious unemployment problem.”

South Africa recently set up a Working for Energy programme. This programme aims to marry the rolling out of sustainable energy options in South Africa with job creation, focusing on up-skilling the unskilled. The programme will intentionally choose labour-intensive alternatives to stimulate job creation.

Something for other African countries to consider?

Munyaradzi Makoni, freelance journalist for SciDev.Net


Removing the stigma of solar heaters in SA

November 9, 2010

Solar heaters are sometimes seen as a stigma in South Africa. Image Credit: Kuyasa CDM project

The second day of the ASADI meeting kicked off with a passionate speech from Dipuo Peters, South Africa’s energy minister.

She brought up an interesting, and somewhat saddening, problem in South Africa. The South African government has been investing in solar water heaters for poor households. This has been a great success in Kayelitsha, a township near Cape Town, where researchers have verified the social benefits of such interventions.

But the roll-out of such technologies in poor areas has had an unintended consequence. Poor South Africans often assume that non-standard technologies distributed to them are inferior to those used by the majority. This has resulted in a distrust of unconventional, experimental, non-grid energy generation technologies such as solar heating.

Renewable energy – in particular solar energy – therefore needs an image boost in South Africa. The minister urged people who can afford it to invest in solar panels on their houses to stop them being a signifier for being poor.

We have not heard whether this is a problem in other African countries. In Kenya, for example, a 14-year-old boy’s home-built windmill became emblematic of African innovation a few years ago.

A stronger sense of technology ownership is clearly crucial to improve its acceptance in poor communities. Khayelitsha’s solar heaters are a badge of success for the government of South Africa and residents alike. It would be a shame if prejudice limits the uptake of solar heaters elsewhere.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist


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