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Investing in Stem education and building scientific capacity is critical for Africa


Kelly Chibale, PhD, FRSSAf, FRSC, FAAS, MASSAf is professor of organic chemistry at the University of Cape Town, the Neville Isdell Chair in African-centric Drug Discovery and Development, and the founder and director of the H3D Drug Discovery and Development Centre at UCT.

World Youth Skills Day 2022 comes at a critical time when globally, countries are seeking ways to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Solutions need to be youth inclusive and grow the number of skilled scientists on the continent.

Whenever I tell my story about my experience with malaria as a young boy in Zambia, I always mention what a difference modern medicine has made in my life.

When I got sick with malaria and suffered from its seriously debilitating symptoms, I was admitted to a local health facility where I received malaria medication, which cured the disease after a few days. Without the malaria treatment, I could have died.

At the time of my experience with the disease, I did not know that there were people who invested in research and development to discover and develop malaria medication while others sacrificed their time to participate in clinical trials that led to safe and efficacious malaria treatment that cured me. This childhood experience planted the seed and understanding of the power of science and modern medicine.

Over the last few decades, I’ve had the opportunity to be part of the drug discovery ecosystem and contribute to the research and development of new medicines. Most importantly, it has been a passion and goal to improve perceptions about science as an abstract inaccessible field, and also provide opportunities for building the capacity of budding researchers in the continent.

As we continue determining a new post-Covid normal, we must recognise and acknowledge the urgent need to build the capacity of young scientists in Africa. While the continent has made significant efforts to prioritise education in national strategies and development plans, there is no denying that inequalities and inefficiencies remain.

Statistics from the World Economic Forum reveal that currently, fewer than 2% of African students under 18 years complete school with vital Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) skills. Technology and innovation continue to expand into every aspect of our lives, making Stem important today.

What happens after young people complete school is also striking; among African university or college students, fewer than 25% pursue Stem-related fields to pursue career opportunities. The high rate of youth unemployment — even among university and college graduates — is one of the most serious pressing challenges in the continent.

There are many challenges facing current Stem education in Africa, including a lack of teaching resources, under-resourced schools with large class sizes, language barriers and a lack of diversity in learning materials. We need to re-create the current Stem education materials as well as the curricula to teach the youth Stem-related courses more effectively and make Stem-related courses more attractive, understandable, and engaging.

An innovative learning ecosystem for Stem-related skills will greatly benefit the continent’s growth and development by building capacity for a competent and sufficient local Stem workforce that will lead the way for Africa to reach global economic competitiveness.

Changing perceptions about the nature of science and positioning Stem-related education in Africa as a gateway to economic development could be beneficial for keeping young entrepreneurs on the continent.

Emerging opportunities in research and development, science, and innovation can contribute to improving the socioeconomic status of the continent. Although Africa ranks highest globally in entrepreneurship with 22% of the working-age population starting businesses, there is not sufficient investment in nurturing a thriving innovation ecosystem to retain this talent.

Promising scientists continue to migrate in large numbers from Africa to industrialised countries in pursuit of opportunity, depleting the continent’s pool of capable leaders and business people.

We should leverage every opportunity to identify, incentivise and support pioneering young African entrepreneurs, specifically in fields such as health sciences technology and pharmacology. They need to be provided with financial resources, training, mentorship and opportunities to develop their business ideas and advance promising solutions to strengthen the health systems of African countries.

We can produce globally competitive businesses that can attract and boost investor confidence and translate to more job opportunities (both direct, indirect and induced).

The role of African scientists has been critical in the fight against Covid-19 including in strengthening mechanisms for identifying and prioritising (potentially) relevant mutations and was critical in global collaborations around Covid-19 therapeutics.

To build on these scientific wins, local young talent must be identified, encouraged and nurtured to build a critical mass of skilled scientists. Supporting young people better, ensuring their career progression and supporting scientific entrepreneurship can help move the continent forward. Therefore, opportunities for increased resources and better coordination at the continental level are needed to enhance knowledge and capacity development effectiveness.

Africa needs partnerships that will enable Africans to become more self-reliant and a global player in innovative pharmaceutical R&D. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated that now is the time for building partnerships to increase investments in science, skills development, and infrastructure to provide sustainable and scalable health solutions.

These solutions include building on existing networks to unlock the drug discovery ecosystem and reinforce the credibility of science. This approach will provide a far greater absorptive capacity to create and extend innovative initiatives such as Stem Belle and Stem4Her across the continent and encourage young people to take up Stem education as well as attract and retain skilled African scientists.

World Youth Skills Day 2022 on 15 July must be a reminder for us that as we prioritise post-pandemic recovery, young people should not be left behind. As we find tools for the future to cushion the continent from other blows, we must incorporate young people’s skills concerns and challenges into the policy agendas in education, science, culture, and communication.

There is no better time than now to plant the seed for Africa’s own prosperity. DM


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