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Mozambique's science and technology minister, Venâncio Massingue, tells SciDev.Net how he hopes to ensure that science benefits everyone.

When Mozambique hosted the 29th General Assembly of the International Council for Science (ICSU) in October, the first time an event of this scale has been held in Sub-Saharan Africa, it was a coup for the country's science and technology minister, Venâncio Massingue.

Massingue trained as an electrical engineer in the Netherlands but has committed his life to using science and technology to revive his country. Mozambique is still wracked with poverty as it tries to overcome the effects of nearly three decades of civil war. SciDev.Net correspondent, Carol Campbell, spoke to him at the ICSU symposium in Mozambique's capital, Maputo.

What are the challenges that Mozambique faces in science and technology?

There are three major challenges. The first is human resource development. We need to speed up the process by which Mozambicans can achieve their Masters and PhD degrees, and equip those already at this level with the capacity to do research.

The second challenge is to harmonise and consolidate the science and technology system. We have to make sure our research units have laboratories that can make an impact. We need to upgrade existing research facilities and infrastructure while at the same time build new facilities in areas that don't have anything.

The third major challenge is to help our students and scientists gain access to financial resources so that they can bring their ideas to fruition and find the jobs they want.

What is your vision for science and technology in Mozambique?

Science and technology is the primary productive force in our country and we all have the right to benefit from it. We should do what we can to ensure its benefits reach as many of our people as possible. My vision is for Mozambican scientists to be out working in the rural areas with the Mozambican people, trying to find solutions to their very real problems. At the same time, I understand that scientists need resources and infrastructure, and we are working towards creating these opportunities and support structures for them.

You have developed five 'thematic councils' to develop different areas of science in the country — what are they?

Yes, they cover water, agriculture, ethno-botany, energy and health. They comprise the best science minds in the country — drawn from universities, the private sector and nongovernmental organisations. They advise the government in their respective areas.

How will you ensure science and technology helps Mozambique's most vulnerable people and not just the elite?

This is a big challenge and one that I feel strongly about. Most of us attained our doctorates in Europe and have established networks in Europe. The tendency is to travel away from Mozambique and not give time to the issues at home. Often it is easier for our scientists to get funding for a conference in America than a transport allowance to go to one of the provinces to do research. It is crucial that scientists are in the field, understanding local challenges and interacting with people.

Agriculture can enjoy huge benefits from science development. By interacting with people, scientists can better understand seed production and what farmers need, they can understand animal breeding like why one pig is growing faster than another one.

This is also where innovation becomes so important. One example of where science has helped the poor is the development of a new bread made with wheat and cassava flour (the cassava tuber is a staple food for over 50 per cent of Mozambique's population). This bread is nutritious and much cheaper than ordinary bread.

How can you foster a culture of innovation in a country with limited resources?

There are two groups that need attention. The academics, who need to work on competitive research projects for the benefit of the country, and then the non-educated innovators, who have brilliant minds but who are illiterate.

For the second group, we have developed a national innovation programme. It uses regional networks and provincial structures to find people who are thinking of real and innovative solutions to everyday challenges. The names of these people are being collected on a database.

One of the most successful recent examples is a man who invented a manual water pump. He has been teamed up with a local business that makes car exhausts and together they developed a prototype. This is now being marketed and already 100 of these pumps have been sold for about US$1,000 each. The manufacturer takes a cut of the profits and the innovator gets his share. In this way science can solve a problem and create wealth.

Are you getting help from donor countries and higher-education partnerships within and outside Africa?

We have a lot of partners — so many that I am afraid I might leave someone out. There is the World Bank and then partners in Japan, Sweden, China, India, Spain, Finland and others. And, of course, South Africa.

How are you tackling the brain drain problem?

I prefer to talk about our scientists' mobility. It is important to expose people to what is going on in the world and also within the country. For scientists to develop they need to be able to move between institutions, but also to go abroad for a time.

Mozambicans living abroad come back, and even if they don't, their knowledge is accessible to those at home. Look at Filipe Lucio (senior scientific officer for the Disaster Risk Reduction Programme of the World Meteorological Organisation, in Geneva). When we heard we were to host the ICSU Symposium we called on him to come home and contribute — which he did.

You are an electrical engineer, what persuaded you to move into politics?

I don't think I have moved. Science and politics are intertwined. They can both be used wrongly or well — and that is the challenge. When the president asked me to do this job he said: "We want you to show us how to use science and technology to boost our country." I couldn't say "No" to him. Science can enable a country like Mozambique to leapfrog old technology as it catches up with the development of infrastructure. For example, there is no point in laying copper cables for telecommunications anymore, as technology has changed and improved.

Were you never tempted to practise as an electrical engineer in Europe or America?

When I was a child my grandmother and my mother, who were both illiterate, made sure I went to school every day. My mother was widowed at 35 with four children. Yet when I came home from school those two women made sure there were cassava and peanuts for me to eat. They encouraged me and they made sacrifices, and their expectations of me were high. I couldn't turn my back on them or any of the other mothers and grandmothers of Mozambique. I am doing this for them. It is an issue of principle.