Next month will see graduations from the two branches of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Senegal and South Africa, bringing the total number of alumni of this ambitious project to 450 since it was started in 2003.
A third AIMS centre is scheduled to open in Ghana in September, followed by a fourth in Ethiopia next year.
More money could spawn further AIMS centres across the continent — leading to a pan-African network of thousands of well-trained alumni, says an article in Science.
The project's founder, Neil Turok, hopes for a network of 15 AIMS institutes, and believes that excellence in mathematics is one of the keys to development for Africa.
"I really think that will transform development," says Turok, a South African–born mathematician who heads the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.
"It would cost US$100 million over the next ten years — that's about 0.003 per cent of Africa's total aid budget."
He has ambitiously dubbed the project the AIMS Next Einstein Initiative — the idea being that the 21st century's most revolutionary mathematicians could be Africans.
Currently, AIMS does not charge tuition fees, and women make up 30 per cent of its student body.
The first branch, AIMS South Africa, was founded in 2003 just outside Cape Town, while the Senegalese branch is housed on a small nature reserve in M'bour, 2.5 hours south of the capital, Dakar.
The Senegalese branch has 31 students from across Africa. Top lecturers from around the world come to M'bour to teach for three weeks at a time. They make themselves very accessible, and discussions with students often continue during the communal meals and into the night.
"It's amazing and very inspiring," says Nigerian student Odumodu Nneka Chigozie. But it is also "very hard work", says another student, Diogène Pongui, from the Republic of the Congo.
Students come for several months of immersion in high-level mathematics. For many of them, the focus on problem-solving rather than rote learning is like "shock therapy", Turok says.
"The first two months, they are typically very unhappy. Then a light bulb goes on, and they realise they can learn by playing and discovering."
Several AIMS Senegal students have already lined up PhD training at universities in Europe and North America.
Science doi:10.1126/science.336.6081.533 (2012)