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Africa’s science and technology (S&T) education needs a big boost to fulfil the AU’s vision, writes Linda Nordling.

Imagine Africa 50 years from now. What do you see? An end to hunger, conflict and poverty?

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chair of the African Union (AU) Commission, sees all these things, and more. She shared her vision of the future at the AU heads of state summit that took place on 30-31 January in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

In an “email from the future”, fictitiously penned in the year 2063, Dlamini-Zuma paints a picture of an assured continent with health and wealth to spare.

But while her vision is compelling, it won’t stand a chance of being made a reality unless the continent’s science and technology policy undergoes a pervasive change.

And the change needs to happen now — not in 50 years’ time.

Prosperity in unity

Dlamini-Zuma's take of Africa’s future is compelling.

Gone are the days of having to transit in Europe or the Middle East when travelling within the continent. Instead, Africa’s capital cities are connected via an ultra-modern high-speed rail network, the African Express Rail.

These railways do not just ferry people — they also contain pipelines for gas, oil and water, as well as for information and communication technology (ICT) broadband. The ‘silicon savannah’ is a reality, and intra-African trade makes up the majority, rather than the minority, of the continent’s economy.

“In an ‘email from the future’, fictitiously penned in the year 2063, Dlamini-Zuma paints a picture of an assured continent with health and wealth to spare.”

 Linda Nordling

Kiswahili ― currently spoken mainly in East Africa ― is the lingua franca of the continent. Healthcare is universally available. Malaria is eradicated. Energy is green and affordable. Aid is a thing of the past — Africa has taken charge of its own transformation, economically and socially.

Most importantly, she writes, Africa is one. There is free movement of people, of professional and educational qualifications. African businesses are booming.

“Pan-African companies, from mining to finance, food and beverages, hospitality and tourism, pharmaceuticals, fashion, fisheries and ICT are driving integration, and are amongst the global leaders in their sectors,” she writes.

Harnessing S&T

The need to continue investing in science and technology and in innovation pervades Dlamini-Zuma’s vision.

She writes: “We experienced a true renaissance, through the investments we made, as governments and the private sector in education and in technology, science, research and innovation”.

She mentions how the Pan African University, a development of the last few years, was instrumental in uniting Africa. An African Space Agency leads the

continent’s effort in the skies.

And scientists from all over the world flock to research institutes on the islands of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles to take part in ground-breaking marine projects focusing on the ‘blue economy’.

Planting the seeds

It is safe to say that everyone would love to see Dlamini-Zuma’s vision of Africa’s future fulfilled.

But are the continent’s nations laying the right groundwork to reach this vision in 50 years’ time? Are Dlamini-Zuma’s dreams realistic?

Half a century may seem like a long time. But it is the schoolchildren of today who will be the leaders of the grand research institutes and engineering projects set out in Dlamini-Zuma’s future.

“Without a major push for improved education starting today, in particular in science and technology fields, Africa in 2063 risks staying poverty-stricken, aid-dependent and disease-ridden.”

Linda Nordling

What are the AU and its member states doing to make sure these people get the right grounding in life? Not enough, it would seem.

Last year, the AU began consultations on its draft document ‘Agenda 2063’. This is a continental policy vision meant to chart Africa’s course to prosperity.

The vision speaks of skills development, boosting production of PhDs and mobility between African institutions.

“Academics and universities are crucial to the African narrative. You hold the key to our true development,” Dlamini-Zuma told a meeting on African PhD training that took place in Pretoria, South Africa, in October last year.

The future, now

But with current efforts, her vision is a pipe dream. Education in South Africa, one of the continent’s wealthiest countries, is problematic. Low standards and racial inequalities bedevil the system.

Further afield, postgraduate education — master’s and PhD training — is being sidelined as universities struggle to cater for exploding undergraduate cohorts on shoestring budgets.

And across the continent, science and technology advances often fail to make an impact on development projects in policy areas not directly overseen by the ministry responsible for science.  

Unless these failures in building Africa’s knowledge economy through educating its people are addressed now, by the AU and the continent’s national governments, Dlamini-Zuma’s Africa won’t come to pass.

Without a major push for improved education starting today, in particular in science and technology fields, Africa in 2063 risks staying poverty-stricken, aid-dependent and disease-ridden.

The young people of today, and the next few decades deserve much better.
Linda Nording

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.