GROUNDED POTENTIAL OP-ED
To foster African science, breaking barriers to intracontinental mobility is paramount
Science should serve as the unifying force that brings Africa together. The continent must engage in closer collaboration, placing science at the forefront. But significant obstacles persist.
Anyone who has travelled and has had to apply for a visa will know the feeling: The uncertainty of what form is required, how to make payment, what website to use, what background is needed on a photograph, what vaccinations to have, whether I will get my visa on time, all make for a stressful experience.
Recently, we had to apply for a visa to an African country (best we don’t disclose the name) and the process was a lot more stressful than it should have been. Numerous trips to different offices in Johannesburg and Pretoria; a complete lack of clarity on the process; an insistence that the letters of invitation to the meetings that we’re to attend must be addressed not to the attendee but to the consulate (so, needing another appointment), additional documents required that were not originally on the checklist, and so on.
We don’t have robust evidence to back up this claim, but based on our experience, the visa processes to travel in Africa are more cumbersome than elsewhere. Why, we wondered, was it so difficult for us to get a visa to travel within our own continent to perform our scientific duties? Perhaps one of the reasons is that South Africa makes it so difficult for scientists to travel to South Africa. There is a sense of a quid pro quo here.
We both have first-hand experience of how difficult it is for our colleagues and students from the rest of Africa to study at Wits, and to collaborate with us on research. Not only is this a serious barrier to economic integration, but of greater concern for us, is that it’s a serious barrier to collaboration in science.
Africa has a unique demographic advantage [which] offers an unprecedented opportunity to reshape its narrative for the better.
Thankfully, with the agreement to establish an African Continental Free Trade Agreement, processes to better integrate the African economy are under way. But this is only really the start. Africa, the world’s second-largest continent, is a vast and diverse landscape, in terms of geography and culture. With roughly 1.5 billion people, it’s home to about 18% of the world’s population. Yet, this expansive continent grapples with a multitude of challenges, including the enduring legacies of slavery, colonialism, apartheid, political instability and pervasive underdevelopment.
But amid these adversities, Africa has a unique demographic advantage: It’s the world’s youngest continent, with nearly 60% of its population under the age of 25. This demographic potential offers an unprecedented opportunity to reshape its narrative for the better.
Science, as a powerful catalyst for development, offers solutions to many of the pressing issues Africa faces. From addressing food security and expanding access to clean energy, to mitigating climate change and advancing healthcare, science plays a pivotal role.
Africa’s unique and inhomogeneous landscape is characterised by a wealth of diversity. It encompasses various languages, cultures, histories, economies and political landscapes. Given this complexity, a one-size-fits-all approach is unrealistic. We need to get to know each other as African scientists much better if we are going to work better with each other. This calls for closer contacts and deeper engagements. Understanding each other’s challenges in their own backyards leaves the visitor with a more profound respect for and appreciation of what and who we are working with.
The lack of direct flights within the continent constitutes a significant impediment to efficient collaboration and knowledge exchange.
Science should serve as the unifying force that brings Africa together. The continent must engage in closer collaboration, placing science at the forefront. This necessitates a nuanced and sustained approach to scientific development, driven not solely by a sense of duty but by the realisation that Africa’s integration into the global scientific community benefits the entire world.
Read more in Daily Maverick: SA’s shambolic visa regime is hampering economic growth and job creation
Nevertheless, significant obstacles persist, including limited investments in science and technology by African governments. Unlocking the full potential of science in Africa hinges on the freedom of scientists to collaborate across its borders. However, aside from the visa issues, further complicating the matter is the sorry state of intra-African air connectivity. And, public transport is virtually non-existent. Researchers moving from one African country to another often find themselves constrained by limited travel options. In some instances, the only way to reach another African destination is through circuitous routes that may include layovers in European cities, which often require transit visas. The lack of direct flights within the continent constitutes a significant impediment to efficient collaboration and knowledge exchange.
For science to flourish, critical mass is essential. To combat the brain drain that has plagued the continent, Africa must create more opportunities within its borders. Challenges such as inadequate funding, expensive equipment, restricted access to research facilities, and the cumbersome visa application process, must be overcome.
Promoting intracontinental mobility is paramount, facilitating the movement of scientists and enabling them to collaborate more freely within Africa. As scholars from different nations come together, sharing ideas and expertise, they unlock Africa’s vast intellectual resources. When Africans begin to engage more with each other intellectually, so too will we begin to break away from the shackles of our past. DM
Imraan Valodia is Wits Pro Vice-Chancellor: Climate Change and Inequality. Nithaya Chetty is Wits Dean of Science.