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Wole Soboyejo argues that Africa needs a network of world-class science and technology research institutes to stimulate social and economic development.

Establishing centres of excellence for science and technology in Africa could enable the rapid development of a critical mass of highly skilled people and make the continent an essential player in the knowledge-based global economy of the twenty first century.

In the early 1960s, Africa had several centres of excellence producing globally competitive scholars. For example, some of East Africa's great leaders — such as President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania — graduated from Makerere University in Uganda. Similarly, the University of Ibadan in Nigeria produced many top scientists and writers, including the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.

But the hard won excellence of the 1950s and 1960s has declined over the past 40 years. This has happened partly because of inadequate internal and external funding, and a tendency to focus on the quantity, rather than quality, of education. Another factor is that external funding agencies fail to give enough emphasis to the postgraduate education that produces a knowledge-based workforce.

This has made it difficult for Africa to compete economically with the rest of the world, and has also led to a serious shortage of skills. Further, even though some countries like Nigeria produce thousands of talented graduates every year, most of the students are still not trained to a globally competitive level.

Innovation for development

Most of the world has long recognised the strong correlation between economic development and levels of investment in research and development. To achieve meaningful economic and social development, a country must invest at least 1-4 per cent of its gross national product in science and technology research. But most African nations claim they are too poor to commit to this.

Many African researchers therefore rely on external donors, aid agencies and grant-giving bodies to sponsor their work.

In the absence of serious local funding for research and innovation, much of Africa remains industrially underdeveloped.

Yet a knowledge-based transformation is still possible in Africa. The planned Nelson Mandela Institutes — also known as the African Institutes of Science and Technology (AISTs) — have the potential to be the scientific and technological engines of economic growth throughout the continent.

These institutes aim to emulate the excellence of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Technology, and to do science with real impact. The AISTs will develop a network of not-for-profit institutions across Africa that will hopefully become world-class centres of science and technology.

Centres of excellence like these are essential for leveraging investment in African development.

The AISTs will recruit Africa's best and brightest students and scholars to address the continent's real problems — food, water, shelter, health, public policy, entrepreneurship, energy and the environment — through interdisciplinary teaching and research. They will work with industry, business and government to close Africa's skills gap by ensuring graduates have the capabilities that employers are looking for, and that Africa needs.

They will work with existing universities, using affiliated centres for postgraduate training and offering other African universities access to their facilities and resources.

The first AIST is scheduled to open in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2007, and will form part of the Abuja Technology Village — a planned cluster of leading research institutes and high-technology companies.

It has been strongly supported by the Nigerian government, who have already provided more than US$30 million of initial funding, and 550 acres of land for this pan-African initiative. Efforts are also underway to secure funds from the African Development Bank and the World Bank to pay for the infrastructure development.

Other AISTs are being developed in Burkina Faso and Tanzania. The plans for the Burkina Faso campus are well advanced, with most of this effort now focused on fundraising. In Tanzania, the government has formed a local committee to assist with local plans.

A true renaissance

As with many African projects, the real challenge lies in ensuring the AISTs have a sustainable future.

Drawing on the experiences of US universities such as Princeton and Harvard, the AISTs aim to build an endowment fund — initially of about US$100 million — to ensure financial stability and independence from government. This will be enough to cover all student scholarships and staff salaries, as well as all the operational costs at AIST-Abuja. Efforts to raise money from major foundations, corporations and individuals across the world are already underway.

To ensure that a world-class academic environment is maintained, three external groups will provide governance and scientific direction at the highest levels. These include a global board of directors, an international scientific advisory board and a committee of scientists from Africa and its diaspora.

The AISTs will provide a vehicle for transforming the good will and idealism of people across the world into a coherent strategy for the knowledge-based transformation of Africa.

They also have the potential to turn the current 'brain drain' into 'brain circulation' by encouraging African scientists working abroad to temporarily, or permanently, return to the continent. They may even lead to a 'brain gain' by attracting new foreign talent.

Essentially, the AISTs will use education, research and innovation to develop an Africa with the potential to transform ideas and human capacity into globally competitive products and better living conditions.

Ultimately, it is hoped that the AIST network will be a catalyst for economic and social development, and the source of a true African renaissance.

Wole Soboyejo is a professor at Princeton University and chair of the African Scientific Committee for the African Institutes of Science and Technology.