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African universities can make a real impact on the continent — Prof Wim de Villiers
Author: Wim de Villiers
Published: 23/11/2022

​​African universities have all the capabilities and skills needed to make a real impact on the continent, writes Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, in an opinion piece published online by the Sunday Times on 22 November 2022.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Wim de Villiers*

“No one is rich enough to buy yesterday. But if you hustle hard, tomorrow could be yours." With Africa Universities' Day being celebrated across our continent today (12 November), these words of Africa's first Nobel Laureate for Literature, Wole Soyinka, carry a profound message for African higher education institutions.

Researchers and thought leaders from our continent have been relentless in their quest over decades to take up spaces in the global academic world, and to make their voices heard. But the hustle has paid off … and the tide is turning.

In recent days, Africa has played host to momentous scientific events that underlines the international recognition of African thought-leadership, but more importantly, foster trans-continental collaboration in science for development with a view to build back better following the Covid-19 pandemic, and to exchange knowledge and know-how on some of the world's most protracted challenges:

  • The Nobel Symposia in Africa (in partnership with Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) and Stellenbosch University (SU) is a first in Africa that seeks to celebrate science and to share breakthroughs with the South African and African continent's scholarly, public and private sectors, in conversation with internationally renowned and celebrated scientists and world movers.
  • The European Guild of Research Intensive Universities' engagement with Africa Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) to jointly request investing €1bn per annum in African research universities by the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) is a progressive step towards the renewed Africa-EU partnership. The work being done here is necessary to address the profound demographic, social and environmental changes facing both continents. Investing in research and innovation would have a significant impact in addressing these challenges in both continents.
  • COP27 in Egypt, which took place recently is a UN Initiative on Climate Change, focussing on how the world's eight billion people need to adapt to climate change by 2030. African research leaders play a significant role. For example, the School for Climate Studies at SU has made big strides in collaboration with the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate and leading African researchers and policy makers on African concerns relating to climate change; and building the scientific intellectual capacity to allow the school to lead in areas of carbon dioxide removal and climate management.
  • These follow on the heels of African scientists taking the lead in pathogen genomics. surveillance. The work of Prof Tulio de Oliveira at the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) is focused on enhanced biomedical discovery, improved treatment and diagnosis, and better vaccine development to prevent human disease, and has the potential to lead global research in this field and generate significant economic opportunities for Africa. CERI and the Biomedical Research Institute at SU's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences are geared to train African scientists in cutting-edge genomics, bioinformatics, big data and artificial intelligence techniques to support Africa's scientific advances.

With the detection of the Omicron variant, we already showed the world that Africa is capable of practising world-class science.

What is required now is collaboration across institutions nationally, internationally, trans-continentally with African research-focused institutions playing a pivotal role as reliable science partners. Research collaboration has become an important component of science, technology and innovation internationally and substantial resources are allocated by governments (e.g., South Africa, the European Commission and the USA) for this objective.

This should be emboldened by knowledge exchange and open science. Open science is the movement to enable research, and its dissemination, to be accessible by all members of society, free of cost. The sharing and ease of access increases efficiency and quality of research, allows for an expansion of innovation and escalates collaboration. My view, however, is that it be practised with the intention to include African universities as equal partners with equal expertise, skills and capabilities. Too often, we go searching for the answers from our European and American partners, before looking inside our own borders or even accepting the solutions. Whilst I do not discount the fact that we need international support, that we value international support, I believe we should be looking for that support by collaborating in partnership with them rather than in cooperation.

Great examples of how knowledge is currently being shared collaboratively and already making a positive impact come from the introduction of Centres of Excellence (CoEs) at SU (and elsewhere at leading universities in Africa).

The launch of the five Centres of Excellence (CoEs) established by the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) that specialise in different interconnecting themes: 1. Climate Resilience; 2. Rural Resources and Food Systems; 3. Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI); 4. Human Capital and Institutions; and 5. Supply Chain and Logistics.

Other partners are the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), and South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Although being new, the AUDA-NEPAD CoE in STI is doing exciting work already regarding implementing real-world change, especially regarding healthcare and the current Covid-19 pandemic.

The African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) CoEs are intended to be focal points for aggregating world-class researchers from member universities to undertake collaborative research in priority thematic areas while providing opportunities for graduate students from the region and elsewhere to work with the researchers. The CoE is therefore an assembly point for good and committed researchers and students seeking to do cutting-edge work.

These serve as practical examples of knowledge sharing to uplift Africa and provide solutions for the challenges of Africa.

Yet, with the hustle to take our rightful place in the global thought leader and scientific arenas now making headway, we should remain cognisant of the real hustle that will enable us to own tomorrow (delivering through our scientific programmes the solutions to unemployment, poverty, inequality and rampant corruption; and transforming the huge youth presence in Africa from a demographic liability to a human resource dividend).  

According to research conducted by the World Bank in 2020, a child born in a sub-Saharan country could expect to achieve only 40% of their future productivity if they were to enjoy complete education and full health. In order to prevent a dependency relationship on outsiders from forming, capacity building within our communities would encourage local people to act on local issues themselves. Capacity building fosters a sense of ownership and empowerment, so that community partners gain greater control over their own future development. The same thinking should be applied to institutions of higher education.

What are the opportunities and challenges in this regard?

By using the output of academic research, we can promote entrepreneurship, innovation, and the creation of new jobs and products and services that address the needs of all African citizens.

Similarly, governments should consider in earnest the recommendations made by think tanks that houses some of the greatest minds who have also invested hours upon hours of research to understand some of the most complex problems and then devising proposals for implementation to the benefit of society.

Since universities are neutral institutions with an immense number of specialists, old and young, who can contribute to solving African development problems, universities are in a unique position, compared to other institutions, to perform the role of a development partner and problem solver on the African continent.

The United Nations revealed findings that predict that Africa is to be home to a quarter of the world's work force by 2050. If we focus on capacity building, then technology, innovation, intra-African trade, manufacturing, sustainability and entrepreneurship are exciting opportunities that we can capitalise on in order to grow our economies and shape a bright future for the continent.

So, in conclusion: If universities on the continent collaborate, share and strike strategic partnerships for human development, tomorrow will be worth hustling for.

*Prof Wim De Villiers is the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University.                                                                                                                                                          ​