Philippe Mawoko, the first head of the African science observatory currently under construction in Equatorial Guinea, speaks to SciDev.Net about the new institution.
Earlier this year, Philippe Mawoko was appointed as the first executive secretary of the African Observatory for Science, Technology and Innovation (AOSTI), a pan-African institution being set up in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.
As former coordinator of the African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators Initiative (ASTII), the Democratic Republic of Congo-born mathematician recently oversaw the production of Africa's first statistical review of its science and innovation, 'Africa Innovation Outlook 2010'.
This 136-page document is the first in a series of Africa-owned science, technology and innovation surveys envisaged under the ASTII initiative. Looking after these data will be part of Mawoko's new job. But, as he tells SciDev.Net, the observatory's evolving role is likely to include much more.
Why does Africa need an observatory for STI?
Science, technology and innovation (STI) underpin many African policies. For instance, African governments have agreed to increase their expenditure on research and development (R&D) to one per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). However, until the first African Innovation Outlook, there had been no Africa-led monitoring to see whether countries were advancing towards that goal.
The African Observatory for Science, Technology and Innovation is envisaged as an Africa-led centre to host, analyse and publish STI data and information, and also to collect and review STI policies in African countries.
The concept is embedded in 'Africa's Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action' (CPA) — adopted by the African ministerial conference on science and technology in 2005 — of which the ASTII is a flagship programme.
The new centre will be based in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
So the observatory will house the data collected by the African Innovation Outlooks?
Data are obtained from the countries that collected them through surveys or other sources or instruments. The observatory can also initiate its own data collection processes. The African Innovation Outlook is a series of publications that will be used to disseminate the results of analysis of these data, among other things.
The STI data held by the observatory will also enable African policymakers to make international comparisons of research, development and innovation performance across African countries and abroad, and to identify areas of innovation that need support. In other words, the observatory will produce data to support evidence-based policymaking.
For example, it will conduct expert studies to inform innovation in agriculture, mining and textiles. Where credible data already exist, the observatory will strengthen them. Where no data exist, the observatory will initiate or support the processes of collecting data.
Finally, the observatory will work to raise the awareness of STI activities and their benefits. In agriculture, for instance, in addition to the information contained in the African Innovation Outlook series, the observatory will provide the results of case studies to help policymakers appreciate and support innovation as a driver of growth.
Why was Equatorial Guinea chosen to host this facility?
Equatorial Guinea was the only country that volunteered to provide premises and equipment for the headquarters of AOSTI, and to provide the initial financial contribution for its establishment. This was done at the African Union summit of February 2009 in Addis Ababa.
What will the observatory look like, and when will it be up and running?
The foundation stone for the physical home of AOSTI was laid on 30 June in Malabo during an African Union (AU) summit. This was done jointly by the president of Equatorial Guinea, in his capacity as chairman of the AU, the chairperson of the AU Commission and the representative of the secretary general of the UN at the summit. This symbolises the commitment of Africa's political leadership to STI for the socio-economic transformation of the continent.
However, it's too early to give details on how the building will look. The host country, in consultation with the AU Commission and the AOSTI team, will guide the architects who will chart the design and structure. Until the building is completed, the government of Equatorial Guinea will provide alternative office space for the AOSTI staff. There will be core staff who form the secretariat. But AOSTI will work with a network of STI experts and stakeholders who will not necessarily be based at the Malabo centre.
Mawoko: 'In this era of ICTs, data are just a click away'
Malabo is hardly a hub for African air travel. How will users access this information?
In this era of information and communication technology, data are just a click away. Users won't need to physically come to the observatory to review or access the data. We will implement an appropriate information technology system to enable scientists, policymakers and the public to access the information they need.
There has been some concern about Equatorial Guinea's ability to host an information portal. Does the country have the necessary Internet and telephone connections to fulfil this job?
In my opinion, this is a challenge worth taking. Africa is our continent, and if we do not address these types of problems, nobody else will. We ought to address these issues, not shy away from them.
Who is taking over at ASTII from you?
ASTII is being taken over by the member states of the AU. In 2005, they structured the ASTII programme as it is presented in the CPA. In 2007, they resolved how they wanted the data to be collected. Now they are putting an STI observatory in place.
Equatorial Guinea is taking a leading role in setting up the observatory. Countries that participated in the experimental phase of ASTII and new ones are gearing up to move the initiative forward. These are signs of African ownership and leadership for this programme.
What challenges did you face in coordinating the production of the first African Innovation Outlook?
This was a joint effort that included African experts at the national ASTII focal points, the group of experts who accompanied the implementation, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) Planning and Coordinating Agency, the AU Commission's directorate for human resources, science and technology, and donors such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.
There had been individual surveys before but this was the first time that, as a collective, we had conducted R&D and innovation surveys. So there were many challenges. The lack of adequate experience in collecting R&D and innovation statistics in Africa was one. Access to funding to gather the data was another. The challenge of adapting research and innovation concepts to local contexts was a third. I won't try to rank them.
We are now entering an exciting second round. We will work on the challenges encountered and improve the quality of measurements. More exciting is the dimension of policy analysis and review that the programme will take on board.
How will the observatory be funded long-term?
Currently, AOSTI is financially supported by the government of Equatorial Guinea on the basis of a host agreement it signed with the AU Commission in July 2010. As we forge ahead, other instruments will be put in place to ensure its sustainability.
Q&As are edited for length and clarity.