In order to develop, modern economies require science and engineering research. Many Western companies began their R&D efforts in academic laboratories – many U.S. universities are a perfect example of this. The population of Africa is expected to grow to 2.5 billion by 2050. What can be done to address its own challenges with science and engineering research? 

The accomplishments of those who have studied at US universities, from undergraduate to doctoral level, are undeniable. Their research and innovations have been admired around the globe, with American universities renowned for their technological progress. The US supportive system for translating scientific discoveries into business ventures has caused investors to inject capital into startups, which has generated employment opportunities and widespread economic gains. Think of Google, Dell, Sun Microsystems, FedEx, Yahoo, and Facebook. 

Even though African researchers conduct research – both public and private – their contribution to the world is low. There is little government funding for more ambitious research in Africa, as African governments do not invest much of their GDP into research. Despite this, many African researchers in academia go unrecognized for their efforts, even though many of them were educated in developed countries like the UK, Germany, US, and Canada. 

The Importance of Research in Africa 

African scientists have taken up research projects with the potential to impact their continent and humanity. The medications we rely on may not exist without relevant contributions from African experts in life science, who can, every year, save countless lives. Additionally, tropical Africa is known for its vast biodiversity; through sophisticated AI, a breakthrough botanical enzyme may be the next achievement in medication. Moreover, could a Mauritanian, Nigerian or Kenyan material scientists be on the path to discovering a Nano material suitable for use in aircraft engines, wind turbines or electric motors based on his or her research? 

Millennials doing scientific research in Africa are often limited by a lack of resources. To scale their studies, collaborations with peers across Africa and beyond are vital, as are engagements from the African diaspora within western research institutions. It is also important for private sector companies to build relationships with STEM researchers from the African continent, many of whom have developed innovations that can enhance existing global products or sectors in areas such as medical devices, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and basic chemical production — all of which can help to solve challenges in Africa and beyond. 

Demographic Challenges 

Today, there are about 1.4 billion people living in 55 countries across the African continent. In about 25 to 30 years, it is estimated that the continent will have 2.5 billion people. What impact will this have on food security, energy, and climate change? To solve African challenges, how can African scientists be used as a source of the next great scientific research discovery? 

Commercializing Research and Innovation 

All these statistics can cause anxiety, but they can also inspire hope that there is so much we can do to promote impactful research and innovation in Africa. What Africa needs is a long-term plan that can involve American universities and African professionals. Africa needs something like a Marshall Plan for commercialization research and innovation in Africa to scale African research for commercial opportunities. This plan would bring business opportunities to a growing middle class with more disposable incomes, as well as partnerships with universities, private businesses and inspire those who left the continent for STEM research opportunities, to come back and partner. For those unfamiliar – the Marshall Plan was an American effort to give aid to Western Europe after World War II, spending more than $15 billion taxpayer money on rebuilding. The same type of approach is needed here – collaboration between African universities and the private sector, combined with encouraging the diaspora to come home and contributing their technical expertise. 

Multinational firms such as IBM, Nestle and Google and others recognize that African-based research and creativity are essential; consequently, these enterprises have established R&D facilities in strategic African countries. Leveraging the expertise of their global and local workforce, some of them have even appointed diaspora professionals to direct these labs. IBM has set up research centers in Kenya and South Africa while Google boasts its own AI research center in Ghana. Why have they opted for the African continent? It is plausible that they see an opportunity to observe innovative ideas currently being produced by startups and others while also having the foresight to detect potential innovations which could be commercialized. In order to outsmart competitors down the line, it is now more necessary than ever before to be part of this race – after all, within 30 years one fifth of the world’s population will originate from this continent! This gives rise to a lot of optimism for those who possess the capacity to conceive ingenious innovations covering energy conservation, climate change tolerant crops or capitalizing on sustainable businesses – a breakthrough that could echo through future generations. 

Economic Development Opportunity 

In the last two decades, innovation and research have enabled the tech industry to thrive in the developed world. This has brought benefits to local communities, boosting their growth, and providing additional tax income for public services. Major international businesses have employed many of these people as programmers, product managers and analysts. Africa can follow this trend by promoting her own homegrown tech firms – be it an idea from a laboratory, a budding startup or an academic venture that is likely to create economic development opportunities. This would not only open up more job opportunities for Africans but also particularly for recent graduates. Africa needs economic stability – over half of its population will be under the age of 30 in the next 30 years. Considering the recent news stories of young Africans crossing the Mediterranean in search of better jobs in Europe, more jobs are needed than ever. To create jobs for these young African minds, we need a Marshall Plan for commercializing research and innovation. 

How Do We Get There? 

At the United States-Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022, numerous African nations were represented. This has prompted further inquiry as to how the U.S. government can stimulate these states to connect more with their diaspora populations. Furthermore, what are African embassies and consulates doing to engage with their professional diasporas? What strategies have been adopted by these nations to utilize their African Diaspora professionals? What lessons can Ireland, Israel and India’s engagement with their diaspora professionals be learnt by African countries? 

The Indian government recognizes the potential of its diaspora, often offering tax breaks and incentives to those who come home to start companies. Wipro and Reliance Industries are just two examples of companies founded or managed by diaspora returnees. The Indian government has an ongoing relationship with its citizens abroad, one that is reinforced by recent successes in the life sciences sector due to a generation of professionals educated in Western universities who brought knowledge and technical expertise back to India. Covid-19 has shown us how powerful this approach can be – India is now leading global vaccine production! This strategy should serve as an example for African governments, multilateral, and philanthropy organizations. 

Engagement with the African diaspora should be mutually beneficial: not just for financial support, but also for technical assistance and the exchange of ideas and experiences. The continent will face some daunting challenges in the coming decades, making it essential to leverage the African diaspora as a powerful force multiplier. As Africa grows to nearly 2.5 billion in 30 years, we must create our own innovative solutions informed by science and engineering – embracing the wisdom of those within and outside of our borders. This is what our future generations expect and deserve from their leaders today. 

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