Magazine article Foreign Policy

When Do African Problems Need African Solutions?

Magazine article Foreign Policy

When Do African Problems Need African Solutions?

Article excerpt

According to the World Bank, 12 percent of humanity lives in Africa, yet it produces only about 1 percent of global research output. This gap persists because governments don't emphasize science and technology, says 2015 Global Thinker AMEENAH GURIB-FAKIM. As president of Mauritius, the trained chemist has prioritized "science diplomacy" and helped establish a scholarship for local intellectuals. 2010 Global Thinker ORY OKOLLOH has built a career determining how technology can improve lives; she's currently at the Omidyar Network, previously worked for Google, and co-founded Ushahidi, a crowd-sourced platform for crisis reports. Gurib-Fakim and Okolloh recently connected to discuss harnessing the energy of the world's youngest continent and whether "African solutions to African problems" is a dated trope.

AMEENAH GURIB-FAKIM: To me, the Global North and Global South divide today is all about science, technology, and innovation. The only way to shorten the gap is to start valuing Africa's best resource, which is its human capital. We need to consider this now because Africa is the youngest continent; the median age is about 19. The other thing is that 50 years ago, when we were talking about investment in science and technology, we were talking about massive investment in infrastructure. But this has changed. When you look at a country like India that has made massive leaps forward, it no longer depends on heavy-capital investment in infrastmeture, but on investment in the human brain. We have seen the progress that country has made in terms of information technology. ORY OKOLLOH: I wholeheartedly agree with the importance and the need for technology, science, and innovation--for some of the same reasons, and particularly because Africa's demographics are very young. But I don't necessarily think it's only that. The other big gap that I see and worry about is around industrialization. As much as innovation is important, I think we also need to just make stuff. If we look at Kenya, where I'm from, as an example, we are importing everything down to toothpicks. That worries me because if you can't build things or manufacture them, you struggle to close gaps in education and in skills around technology, science, and even engineering. I do worry that this push for a "fourth industrialization" is primarily driven by tech, and I worry that it is suggesting there is an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog straight to digital. India is excelling in technology, yes, but they are also building. I think we need to remember that our region has quite an illustrious history of making and building. We need to regain that.

OO: We talk about "African solutions for African problems," but that is not necessarily at the exclusion of everything else. I don't think it's binary. If you look at my trajectory, I've recognized that there is both a need for solutions that are more relevant to us, but that there is also the need for global collaboration. I am always looking for how to bring the best that is out there-whether it's in Kenya, whether it's in the U.S.--to bear on this region. I think a lot of Africans in my generation, and especially those of us who have spent time overseas before coming back, are quite comfortable moving between the two worlds, though always with a lens of, "What can we do to help our countries or regions?" The Omidyar Network is trying to And the best entrepreneurs working on solutions that could have an impact in the region--and what better way to do it than to work with great local talent to help identify those entrepreneurs? …

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