Africa has returned on the world’s radar screen due to its solid growth performance since the turn of the century. However, broadening and accelerating growth to reduce extreme poverty will require robust homegrown scientific research, technologies and innovation.
The African Union, keenly aware of the link between technology and development, has set for African states a goal of increasing their R&D investment to 1% of their GDP. The continent currently spends a meager 0.4% of its resources on R&D when the global average stands at 1.17%. Although only three countries currently come close to or exceed the goal, the general trend in Africa points toward increased expenditures.
South Africa, the continental leader of the field, spends 0.76% of its GDP on R&D, which is on par with India but below Russia (1.09%), Brazil (1.16%) or China (1.84%), its fellow members of the BRICS club. The country has pledged to take its R&D investment to 1.8% of GDP by 2018-2020 and this attention to science, whether basic or applied, has brought South Africa significant success. The leadership of the international radio telescope SKA (1) project or the successful maiden flight of the AHRLAC (2) , the first military aircraft designed and produced in Africa, are prime examples.
Outside South Africa, an increasing number of African states are progressively coming to see the benefits of a strong local R&D, particularly in areas that matter most to their countrymen like healthcare (with Africa specific diseases) and agriculture (in order to improve crop productivity and resistance to global warming). The countries having the greatest commitment to R&D such as Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria have significantly expanded their investment and, for some, built world class capabilities in specific areas.
In the last decade, the number of papers published by African scientists have tripled to 55 400 (3) even though Africa only represents 2.4% of the global publication output. The growth in quantity has been accompanied by an improvement of the quality of the production (4). Likewise over the 2008-2012 period, the number of patents awarded to Africa has grown by 33% to 833(5).
Despite the scarcity of funding and human resources, inadequate governance and limited cooperation between research centers on the continent, African science is now on the rise and the best is yet to come.
(1)SKA: Square Kilometer Array. System of 3000 parabolic antennae spread over the territory of 9 African countries which, commissioned between 2018 and 2024, will be the most sensitive telescope ever built.
(2) AHRLAC: Advance High Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft.
(3) According to a Reed Elsevier study on African science.
(4) As measured by the number of global citations; source World Bank / Reed Elsevier study.
(5) World Bank Report « Applying Science, Engineering and Technology for African Competitiveness and Development” Mars 2014.