For the umpteenth time, leading researchers across Africa are sending warning that the welfare of the people on the continent may deteriorate further if governments continue to pay leap service to funding research work.
Much of the resources driving research in Africa come from donors, who in most cases fund their area of interest and not necessarily what is going to benefit the continent.
“The weak institutional linkages and the over reliance on international donor funding is dragging the continent backwards and is partly to blame for the miseries facing African countries,” says Dr. Rebecca Hanlin, Development and policy expert from the Open University, Britain.
According to her, Africa can develop faster if governments allocate reasonable funds to science and innovation development in their annual budgets.Although National Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) requires countries to set aside 1 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for research and development, an overwhelming number of African countries have not attained this.
This low investment in science and technology is manifested in declining quality of science and engineering education systems, with student enrolment in this faculty at secondary and tertiary levels declining.
On the other hand, well-trained scientists opt for developed countries where there are facilities that enable them to exploit their potential.
“The fact that African governments under-fund research leaves the gap for the developed countries to fund research projects that are of their interest and not African governments,” says Dr. Hanlin.
Even when they fund, donor interest is short-lived and does not bring on board long-term benefits such as building local capacities.
To Dr Hanlin, increasing research funding and strengthening health systems is one of the main solutions to problems facing the developing countries.
Speaking during a workshop on Health Innovation in Africa at the African Center for Technology Studies (ACTS) in Nairobi, Dr. Hanlin said lack of electricity and proper funding to the health sector has affected the delivery system of vaccines in rural areas, where there are no fridges to preserve the products.
“Whereas vaccines are available for preventing some of the diseases, it is unfortunate that most governments lack transport and cold chains, making access to health by needy people a nightmare.”
Dr Hanlin recommends that more personnel be trained to help boost staff capacity in areas where there are problems with vaccine delivery.
Speaking at the same function, the Director of training at ACTS Prof. Norman Clark challenged scientists to start injecting new and simple ideas into science and innovation development.
“The fact that a lot of knowledge exists calls for institutional change that could help the continent move towards innovation development,” say Dr Clark.
The biggest problem, he adds, is most institutions that train engineers and other professionals on the continent offer more of theory than practical work. There are poor linkages between industry and training institutions.
“It is unfortunate that most science graduates on the continent get more theoretical exposure than practical, with some ending up not seeing engineering tools despite being engineers,” says Dr. Clark
He calls for the establishment of universities that purely offers practical courses as is the case in Europe and America.
An agricultural college in Costa Rica, for instance, strictly offers agricultural engineering course that ranges from theory to agricultural engineering, mechanics and ploughing.
To make the same happen in Africa, scientists are now looking up to the Bioscience centers of excellence that were started by the National Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) to inject new ideas into science development in Africa.
Indeed, in a study commissioned by NEPAD and conducted by the British Open University, the African policy makers want governments to actively engage in decision making processes in health research and share research findings.
The team suggested that policy makers begin their strategic and priority planning with foresight in identifying the best mix of scientific and social technologies.
However some African countries – South Africa, Kenya and Egypt have already adopted a systemic approach that works to build a national system of innovation, where a network of public and private institutions work together to create and diffuse science and technology in all areas of the economy.
The South Africa government has gone further by placing emphasis on collaborative research on malaria and HIV aids as well as in the area of biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Apart from these initiatives, Africa remains one of the continents with a relatively low level of research and development in health innovation.