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Excellence in science, technology and innovation for Africa
Author: Wim de Villiers
Published: 25/05/2021

An Africa Day op-ed by Prof Wim de Villiers* published by Business Day on 25 May 2021. Click here for that version, or read it below.

In light of Africa Day on 25 May, and with the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) coming up in July, now is the perfect time to take a fresh look at socio-economic advancement on our continent.

The world is in turmoil: politically, socially and economically. The COVID-19 pandemic has widened some of the cracks in society at large, and the African continent has certainly not been spared any of it.

Although our continent has many challenges, we also have certain things in our favour. Let me mention just two. We have a habit of “leapfrogging" to the latest technologies and approaches to not only keep up with the rest of the world, but take the lead. And there is already plenty of cooperation taking place on both the geopolitical level and within sectors that are crucial for development.

In higher education, exciting new developments all over the continent, including at Stellenbosch University (SU), suggest that reports of the demise of the “Africa rising" narrative may have been premature.

Developmental challenges are what systems scientist Charles W Churchman called “wicked problems" – highly complex questions comprised of interwoven issues whose potential solutions require creative, interdisciplinary thinking. And sociologist David Cooper uses the concept of a “quadruple helix" to identify the partners needed to address societal challenges: the state, industry or businesses, higher education institutions and other civil society structures. We all have to work together.

The good news is we do not have to reinvent the wheel – we already have examples of solid collaboration on our continent. For instance, the five Centres of Excellence (CoEs) established by the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) bring various stakeholders together in addressing interconnecting themes: climate resilience (based in Cairo, Egypt), rural resources and food systems (in Dakar, Senegal), human capital and institutions (in Nairobi, Kenya), supply chain and logistics (to be established in a Central African country), and science, technology and innovation (in Stellenbosch, South Africa).

The CoE for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) was set up in November as a trilateral partnership between AUDA-NEPAD, South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and SU. Its location is no coincidence – the Centre is based at the heart of the Stellenbosch innovation ecosystem.

Tapping into their longstanding collaboration, SU and the CSIR have already selected over 40 knowledge-based innovations and technologies for rapid upscaling. These represent widely tested and proven technologies or practices which are ready to be taken to the next level – for instance, screening technologies for drug discovery; epidemiological modelling; initiatives around climate change; innovations in water, energy and food security; online learning; and electronic payment systems.

By implementing home-grown solutions for real-world change across Africa, the AUDA-NEPAD CoE-STI will help realise the goals of the AU's Agenda 2063, which have been divided into four areas: industrialisation and wealth creation, shared prosperity and transformed livelihoods, human capital development and transformed institutions, as well as natural resources management and environmental resilience.

Another example of collaboration bearing fruit for Africa is the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking established at SU in 2019. Writing in CIO Africa, tech journalist Jeremy Daniel recently observed, “The importance of data science burst into the public consciousness in 2020, as the world battled to come to grips with the scale of the pandemic. Suddenly, everyone was an amateur data scientist with theories and charts to back it up. But trained African data scientists have been hard to find."

The SU School for Data Science and Computational Thinking works across faculties, encouraging interdisciplinary research and teaching. This July, the School will offer a week-long course taking anyone with basic computer skills to the point where they can build a sophisticated machine-learning model. Participants aiming for certification will subsidise the cost of those who want the skills but cannot afford the fees.

This will help meet the demand for data science that is exploding across the continent. Last year, the South African government announced its goals to train one million young people in data science related skills by 2030.

I am really excited by what is happening on African soil with African collaboration and partnerships. If we work together, the possibilities of what we can achieve are endless. Africa driving its own agenda, converting its enormous potential into actual products and services making a positive difference to the lives of our continent's 1,3 billion people is not a far-fetched idea.

* Professor Wim de Villiers is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, a founding member of the African Research University Alliance. He also serves as Vice-Chair of Universities South Africa.