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The world won’t meet Sustainable Development Goals without Africa

Grand Challenges Annual Meeting panel explored how investment in science, technology and innovation can help get us there

I recently participated in the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting panel Going Faster Together: Scientific Priorities for Africa, held in Addis Ababa. Grand Challenges is a global family of grant initiatives and partners focused on fostering innovation to solve the world’s most pressing health and development problems. Organized on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the panel explored the role of science for good, and for growth in Africa.

Flanked by experts from the African Academy of Sciences, the National Institutes of Health (USA), the African Union Development Agency, the World Health Organization and the European Commission, we explored how technology and innovation can save lives, improve livelihoods and be agents for socioeconomic change, such as creating jobs.

From discussing the need to move funding and partnership agreements into action, and the potential benefits of genetic and genome research in Africa on health, to detailing how agricultural technologies can boost productivity to feed Africa, provide jobs for youth and improve the quality of life for the people of Africa – the plenary session was an insightful way to debunk the myth that science and research, as co-panelist and Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins said, is “just a fun thing we do in the lab.”

Panel moderator Tom Kariuki, who serves as Director of Programs at the African Academy of Sciences, turned to me with questions about how Africa can attract both public and private investment into research in health, agriculture and other sectors.

First we need to make research and scientific development a financial and policy priority for governments. Of course it will get the attention of Africa’s science and technology ministers, health ministers, education ministers, innovation ministers. They are going to care about boosting research in their sectors. But these ministers do not set the financial priorities of nations, arbitraging among competing goals – this requires finance ministers at the table. And they will be there if research is seen as a bottom line growth and development issue.

Take the way the African Development Bank has been nudging nutrition higher on that priority list. Often nutrition is seen as a “good-to-have” or as a cost center for improved health. In other words, as a sort of luxury item. However, we regularly make the point that nutrition is a bottom line, economic growth driver, because, simply put, stunted bodies and brains today mean stunted economies today and tomorrow. This helps to ensure that better nutrition gets the attention it needs at the top of government, where spending and policy priorities are set. And since government will always have limited resources, it is critical to make investing in research appealing to the private sector, with strong potential returns.

And any spending on research needs to serve a concrete development purpose, especially in a region like Africa with limited resources: if more money is put into research, it needs to come from somewhere – should it be redeployed from health spending? Education? Basic infrastructure? These are tough tradeoffs and there needs to be a compelling argument that it is a win-win for the economy over time. This might not always be the case.

For example, the world has more agricultural technologies today than it did when green revolutions happened in Mexico, India and other parts of Asia. Yet Africa has still not experienced its green revolution because those technologies are not getting off the shelves quickly enough to farmers. In the context of climate change, drought-resistant seeds exist, but they do not yet get out to farmers at the scale to make a big difference. This is something that the African Development Bank is working hard to make happen through its Technology for African Agricultural Transformation initiative (TAAT). But my main point is that the use of the research should already be built into the process from the beginning; it cannot be an afterthought.

Research for research’s sake is important, but in Africa, research also needs to have applicable purpose – providing African solutions to African challenges. On the continent, approximately 13 million young people come into the workforce each year, but there are – maybe – one million good jobs waiting for them. This has been going on for some time so I leave you to think about what that means for society if nothing is done to create more opportunities for young people.

So if researchers want more funding, they need to demonstrate that their work is making a difference to the lives of regular Africans.

We can’t forget that Africa has a very young population. African youth are the present and the future of Africa. They look around and see challenges everywhere – and addressing these challenges are, in fact, opportunities. That’s another thing investors are very interested in: how do we turn challenges into opportunities?

We also need to empower women so that more of them are at the research and development table, developing innovations that are relevant for women. A first key step is a big push for more women in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This will provide a deeper pool of talented and trained women in R&D.

What else are we doing at African Development Bank? We are trying to crowd in big funding to investment opportunities in Africa. Interest rates are so low right now: investors are looking for return and this is a big opportunity for Africa. Last year we launched the Africa Investment Forum, which is about bringing together all elements interested in innovations and investments in Africa – but we need bankable projects for them to invest in.

By making research efforts more relevant for development priorities, and applicable to real world challenges, there is every reason to believe that investment will crowd into African research efforts, with positive outcomes for African lives and livelihoods.

Going Faster Together: Scientific Priorities for Africa plenary session panel

Moderator: Tom Kariuki, Director of Programs at the African Academy of Sciences


  • Felix Dakora, President of the African Academy of Science
  • Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health
  • Jennifer Blanke, Vice President for Agriculture, Human and Social Development at African Development Bank
  • Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti, Regional Director at the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa
  • Barbara Kerstiens, Head of Sector Public Health at Directorate-General for Research & Innovation at the European Commission
  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (via video message)

This segment of the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting plenary was my highlight of the series of sessions that brought hundreds of African and global scientists, representatives of multilateral institutions and development banks, funders and government officials to Ethiopia for the organization’s Annual Meeting. You can watch the full plenary panel here:

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