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Opinions of Thursday, 13 October 2011

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

Campaigning for Africa’s Research and Development

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

It is encouraging to hear these days the constant talks about research and development (R&D) in Ghana’s/Africa’s progress. Propositions of setting up high-level research and training institutes in crucial fields such as green technology, crop improvement, tropical medicine, deforestation, water supply and desertification are becoming daily issues not only in Ghana but in one part of Africa or another.
At issue aren’t the arguments that part of African states’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP) be given to R&D but also how the mass media should appropriately communicate the R&D results to Ghanaians/Africans. You watch CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta or read Time magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger and you get the message. Eugene H. Amonoo-Neizer, chair of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says Accra should set aside a percentage of its GDP for R&D. The Ghana mass media is yet to communicate to Ghanaians and Africans how the CSIR’s intercession in the shea butter industry has enhanced the industry so good that it is now growing faster and may beat Ghana’s ancient major cash crop cocoa.
The initial point is how African governments will think indisputably about R&Ds in their development processes, finance them and appropriate the results for development. African governments need not be told about R&D, the elites know the benefits all too well. In 2005, African Ministers of Science and Technology approved the ambitious Consolidated Plan of Action for Africa’s Science and Technology (CPA, 2008-2013) to beef up the wobbly African science and technology capacity.
Amonoo-Neizer is merely reminding African governments that it is an African Union's protocol they signed which mandated them to set aside one per cent of their GDP to R&D. Rather, most African governments are concerned with excessive spending on defence. As Africa’s democracy deepens, critical questions are being asked openly about development indicators, most of which qualities are better shaped by R&D. Why are Africans’ life expectancies so low and so many people dying in their 50s? Why are infant mortalities so bad? Why do people think death is caused by witchcraft? Despite abundant water, why are Africans thirsty?
Despite these, the small R&D outcomes aren’t communicated to Africans. Though Ghanaians are one of the leading producers of cocoa, it was only recently that they got to know about the health benefits of cocoa. The Western world, where R&D is high and backed by superb health communications networks such as United States’ produced The Doctors and Dr. Oz, had known about cocoa’s health benefits years before Ghanaians, and they consume cocoa (and use it for other products) more than Ghanaians.
Olugbemiro Jegede, secretary general of the Association of African Universities, in Accra, grumble about the dearth of communications between researchers and the mass media to Africans. “Africa can only develop and tell the world about its research capacity if the media put out put relevant information … The gap between the public and research continues to widen because journalists are not bridging that gap. Africa needs to transform to ensure that whatever we are spending on research translates into results.”
In the absence of poor R&D and inadequate communications, certain cultural inhibitions that need scientific interpretations have been entangling Africans’ advancement continue to grow, and entrapping the supposedly highly educated. In the year 2011, backed by solid scientific research, Ghanaians/Africans should have less to do with issues of witchcraft, false prophets, demons and evil spirits. In 2011, it is still the irrational ancient way, and more so.
Olugbemiro Jegede and Eugene Amonoo-Neizer reveal Africans attempt to raise their R&D profiles regardless of challenges such as lack of funding. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) acknowledges Africans’ new interest in R&D. “A growing number of African countries have realized that, without investment in science and technology, the continent will remain on the sidelines of the global economy and will find it difficult to bring an end to extreme poverty.”
UNESCO sees Africa’s R&D hopeful signs from the fact that recently several African countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Burkina Faso have enacted laws supporting biotechnology and bioscience researches. “In 2008, 14 countries (Benin, Botswana, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Malawi, Morocco, Senegal, Swaziland, Togo, Zimbabwe and Zambia) called on UNESCO to help review their science policy. And, since 2005, six new science academies have been set up in Mozambique, Sudan, Mauritius, Morocco, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, compared to just nine in the entire period from 1902 to 2004,” UNESCO reports.
As Eugene Amonoo-Neizer said, UNESCO has the same opinion that the development of Africa’s science and technology sector faces a number of challenges, starting with budgetary constraints. “Research and development (R&D) attracts considerably less public investment in sub-Saharan Africa than defence, education or health. The proportion of GDP devoted to R&D averages about 0.3% on the continent, seven times less than that spent by industrialized countries on this sector.”
But Eugene Amonoo-Neizer should have used his forum at the Germany-funded Savannah Agricultural Research Institute, in Ghana’s Northern Region, to move beyond African governments’ low funding of R&D. UNESCO will do that for Eugene Amonoo-Neize: “Brain drain, fostered by the absence of measures to promote research and innovation, the gaps in legislation to protect intellectual property and the low wages earned by scientists, constitutes a major concern. In 2009, at least a third of African scientists or those with engineering degrees were living and working in developed countries. The absence of measures to encourage innovation, gaps in the legislation regarding intellectual property rights and low salaries paid to researchers have all contributed to the brain drain.”
In the efforts to resolve these barriers, the battle for the soul of Africa’s research and development will be waged by “rendering science more attractive to pupils in secondary schools and to students.” And yes, a good dose of international scientific cooperation to keep the emerging African scientific soul warm.