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The Kenyan government last week gave official recognition to the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) — a body set up 20 years ago by the late entomologist Thomas Odhiambo — as a fully fledged international organisation.
The decision opens the doors for the recruitment of a professional, international staff to help the academy achieve its goals of promoting and fostering the growth of a scientific community in Africa.
It will also allow the academy to begin construction of its headquarters on the two-hectare site it owns close to the centre of Nairobi. The construction of the building will be financed out of a US$5 million endowment from the government of Nigeria. Construction is expected to finish by the end of the year.
"This is a very important step for the academy," says Mohamed Hassan, the Sudanese-born mathematician who is president of the academy and director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), which is based in Trieste, Italy.
"We have been trying to achieve this for the past 20 years," Hassan told SciDev.Net shortly after signing an agreement with the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We are now fully recognised as an international organisation, with the associated tax privileges — for example, on equipment and salaries — and diplomatic status. That is very significant for us."
"Not only will it allow us to build our new headquarters and ensure that it is properly staffed, but it will also open up new projects and partners for the academy."
The AAS was founded in 1985. Its mandate covers four principal areas: mobilisation and strengthening of the African scientific community; the publication and dissemination of scientific materials; research development and policy; and capacity building in science and technology.
The main members of the academy are its fellows, who are elected from among active African scientists who have attained high international recognition for their work. Foreign fellows are also elected from outstanding non-African scientists who are considered to have made a significant contribution to the development of science and its application in Africa.
The academy is already recognised as a valuable avenue for publishing and disseminating information relevant to African scientists, and a medium and forum for exchange of ideas and information. However, up to now its lack of official recognition has severely limited its ability to operate effectively.
The AAS building in Nairobi will have two further functions, in addition to meeting the needs of the academy itself. First, it will act as the regional office for TWAS, complementing the existing regional centres in Beijing, China, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Secondly, it will become the operational hub of the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC), recently granted US$200,000 from the InterAcademy Panel as part of its support from the Italian government.
"Our idea [with NASAC] is to help the smaller African academies that are not likely to become major academies in themselves, but still have an important role to play within their countries, and therefore need their capacities building up accordingly," says Hassan.
He points to newly created academies of science in Senegal, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. These, he says, have "excellent leaders", but need help with setting up their secretariats and building up their infrastructures.
Mohamed Hassan is a member of SciDev.Net’s board of trustees.