Africa Urged to Close Science, Technology Gap to Take Advantage of AfCFTA

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Emma Okonji

Former President of Mauritius and Laureate of the 2007 L’Oréal-UNESCO Prize for Women in Science, Professor Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, has called on African leaders to close the existing gap in Science and technology across Africa, in order to take full advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Gurib-Fakim gave the advice while delivering a keynote address at the African Export-Import Bank’s (Afreximbank) fifth annual Babacar Ndiaye Lecture, with the theme: “The Importance of Science, Technology and Innovation in the Transformation of African Economies.”

She called on African leaders to close the region’s science and technology gap to take full advantage of AfCFTA.

In her speech, she laid bare a raft of statistics that showed that Africa is falling well behind the rest of the world in science, technology, and innovation (STI). According to her, only 0.1 per cent of all patent applications are registered in Africa, compared to 65 per cent in Asia and 25 per cent in North America. Africa is also responsible for only two per cent of the world’s research output and one per cent of research spending. Furthermore, the laggards in Africa have 11 researchers per million people whilst the best performing countries in the world, such as South Korea and Denmark had between 7,000-8,000 scientists and researchers per million people.

“How can a continent with the largest share of arable land, a continent with the youngest population, a continent that has fueled all of the world’s industrial revolution, a continent that has helped drive the mobile phone industry, a continent that is at the cusp of supporting the world’s energy transition to greener technology with a large store of rare earth deposits accept such dismal statistics,” she asked.

She blamed “chronic neglect”, the statistics demonstrating that the chronic deficit of researchers and scientists has undoubtedly contributed to the poverty trap that the continent finds itself in.

“The deficit of investment in science and technology and absence of economic and scientific infrastructure has undermined the process of economic transformation both at the structural level and at the sectoral level. The consequences of that deficit have been significant and include continued reliance on the colonial model of resource extraction largely responsible for the debilitating poverty trap and aid dependence trap,” Gurib-Fakim said.

The former President remarked that Africa’s failure to advance in science and technology has been compounded by the fragmentation of its markets. She praised the establishment of AfCFTA for overcoming this hurdle and creating the largest single market in the world by membership. “However, the economic transformation anticipated by the free-trade market hinges on Africa, closing its scientific and technological gap with the rest of the world and sustainably producing the right set of skills to expand both extra and intra African trade,” she further said.

According to her, this would require collaboration and partnerships to create the right conditions to develop centres of excellence on the continent.

Academia, governments and the private sector, she argued, would have to collaborate much more closely to ensure the funding is provided and that the conditions for science to thrive are put in place. In this regard, she praised the leadership role played by Afreximbank in the medical field where the Bank is supporting the growth of pharmaceutical industries and establishment of medical center of excellence.

Gurib-Fakim reminded the audience that the increasing role of technology that was permeating all sectors and industries and driving growth was irreversible. She praised Africa’s successes in certain areas like mobile money, giving the example of M-Pesa which has been adopted in the rest of Africa after being created in Kenya. She equally praised Afreximbank’s Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PAPSS) which is set to facilitate payments for cross-border trade in African currencies and assuage the liquidity constraints.

One of the major challenges, she said, “is the continued brain drain of Africa’s brightest and best scientific minds.”

The former President encouraged the private and public sector to invest much more in education and research and development, adding that every young African has the potential to be a great scientist, to innovate and become globally competitive.