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[LAGOS] Science and technology ministers from the 16 nations in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have agreed to work together to develop science and technology in the sub-region.

Meeting on 4 November in Abuja, Nigeria, the ministers pledged to develop regulatory frameworks, institutions, human resources and infrastructure. They hope their efforts will create a competitive environment that will facilitate investment in science and technology.

To this end, ECOWAS will set up a commission to steer cooperation among member states, and to build links with the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and other relevant agencies.

The ministers also agreed to create research centres in priority areas such as biotechnology, space science, and 'indigenous technology' – which includes technologies for food preservation and crop storage.

Although ECOWAS was formed more than 30 years ago, the Abuja meeting was the first for the countries' science ministers. It could lead to integrated science and technology policies and strategies across West Africa.

West African nations have large reserves of minerals and other natural resources such as gold in Ghana, oil in Nigeria, and diamonds in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The ministers will therefore advocate establishing mineral testing centres and processing units that would add value to exported materials.

To ensure West African scientists profit from their research findings, the ministers say they will pursue the protection of intellectual property rights.

Funding is likely to be a major challenge in a region where donors fund most national budgets and ECOWAS dues are perpetually in arrears.

In 1980, member nations agreed to commit one per cent of their gross domestic product to science and technology. That commitment — which was not met in most states — may need to be resurrected. This time the ministers are also eager for the private sector to help raise venture capital funds.

Realising that implementing their decisions will require strong political will, the ministers pledged to lobby their national parliaments and ECOWAS parliamentarians to promote science and technology.

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