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  • Should Africa reject science it does not own?

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Scientists from across Africa and beyond respond to the recent SciDev.Net opinion article by Kazhila Chinsembu, who urged African nations to regain control over their biological resources and indigenous knowledge (see African science must regain control of local resources).

Follow the links below to read a selection of comments SciDev.Net received.

Ayo Onatola, librarian (former biochemist), St. Christopher's College of Medicine, Luton, United Kingdom

Aziwo T. Niba, Department of Animal Production, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Dschang, Cameroon

C. S. Prakash, professor of plant molecular genetics, Tuskegee University, Alabama, United States

Patrick Nabiswa, senior telecommunications assistant, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya

Ayo Onatola, librarian (former biochemist), St. Christopher's College of Medicine, Luton, United Kingdom

If Africa's researchers could freely access research findings published in scientific journals, and if African governments had the political will to support science and technology, then there would be no need to allude to industrialised nations forcing technology on us.

Scientific enquiry is the best way of assessing the value of any invention or practice. Science is also about improving existing tools and practices in order to achieve better results for the benefit of society at large. The principles are the same in a developing or an industrialised nation.

Indeed, I wonder why some Africans prefer to preserve basic technologies when better ones exist. Indigenous technologies abound in Africa, but many of them require more labour and time than modern technologies, and are less productive.

What stops African scientists from converting research into products that can stand the test of time and compete with others on the international market? Part of the problem is the challenge of acquiring and managing knowledge — both indigenous and foreign — and using it to meet development needs.

For example, traditional medicine is based on our ancestors' ingenuity. But this knowledge is disappearing, partly because many traditional healers do not widely share details of how to concoct their remedies widely before they die.

African scientists must be pragmatic, but also bold enough to show policymakers that their skills can help industrialise Africa and bring it the technologies it needs.

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Aziwo T. Niba, Department of Animal Production, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Dschang, Cameroon

I agree that Africa should not be "enslaved by technology it does not own" but industrialised nations and multinational companies are not to blame for all our problems.

Africa's present food crisis is rooted partly in the complex political and economic forces that shaped our nations even before independence. Africa has enormous human and material resources, which could allow drastic increases in food production. But in many cases, we still do not know how to make our own decisions, and have failed to regain control over our resources.

Before independence, colonial agricultural policy was geared towards producing cash crops (such as cotton, coffee and cocoa) as raw materials for the manufacturing industries of industrialised nations.

Agriculture in Africa has continued to develop along these lines, with most governments encouraging farmers to grow cash crops by subsidising inputs such as fertilisers and seedlings. The drop in global market prices for such crops over the last decade has brought great suffering to African farmers.

African governments should respond by monitoring international market prices, and shaping their agricultural policies to take advantage of the changes in global demand. Equally, governments should be spending more on agricultural research, not on luxury cars, arms and expensive trips abroad.

I believe the answer to the present predicament is for Africa to take control of its destiny. We will never be able to move on unless there is a fundamental shake-up in our mentality, as Chinsembu suggests.

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C. S. Prakash, professor of plant molecular genetics, Tuskegee University, Alabama, United States

Chinsembu invokes a utopian fantasy by describing a mythical past that never existed. By reminiscing about environmentally-friendly traditions and indigenous knowledge he is essentially favouring the status-quo.

Africa has the highest malnutrition and infant mortality rates and the highest prevalence of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. Science can be our best ally in the fight against these problems.

Chinsembu's article shows how easy it is to be persuaded by Western 'eco-luddite' thoughts.

His arguments against genetic technologies that could help Africa achieve greater food security are largely unfounded.

He says: "We must not try to solve our problems with technologies that could enslave us because we do not own the patents on them." Then must Africans only use what Africans have invented? This would mean rejecting cell phones, TV, computers, automobiles, and nearly every gadget and modern medicine.

While no one advocates irresponsible application of technology, the blanket rejection of Western science Chinsembu suggests (because of a paranoid fear of 'ownership') will only spell further doom for this fascinating land.

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Patrick Nabiswa, senior telecommunications assistant, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya

The article is an appeal to African governments and scientists to rethink their stance on both research and adopting technologies that were developed elsewhere. We tend to look at only one side of the coin with such technologies, rushing to embrace them on the basis of advertised advantages, without investigating their long term effects. International collaboration in scientific research is essential. But we must devise effective policies to ensure samples shipped abroad for research are not secretly used to the continent's disadvantage.

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