NEF acknowledges African advances on global innovation

The Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Global Gathering, held recently in Kigali, Rwanda, offered several insights into how global developments have improved prospects for African agriculture, education and health.

Dr Sayed Azam-Ali, the chief executive and founder of Crops for the Future, explained the necessity for science and technology to be used to access and retain the knowledge of “super foods” naturally found in Africa by using climate solutions to translate that knowledge into contemporary practices.

Crops for the Future has designed biotechnology applications for the genetic improvement of underutilised crops, as well as a database capturing crops and agricultural methods of remote rural farmers that often only exists orally. The company then applies this knowledge to grow the crops industrially and modify them into consumer products.

“When an African farmer dies it said that an entire library dies with her,” Ali said as he introduced his company’s research into the genetic mapping and archiving of crops such as the Bambara groundnut – a drought resistant plant with antioxidant properties originating in West Africa, with a nutritional value higher than that of fresh cow’s milk and soy beans.

“There are four crops that Africa needs to survive in the future and unfortunately those plants are not found on the continent. What we have done is developed the first database of underutilized crops … We can turn this pyramid around and put these indigenous crops back on top of the pyramid.”

Changing the way we learn

The agenda of the forum then switched to the intersection of science and culture and how scientific endeavour could be enriched by paying attention to the processes and systems by which knowledge is acquired and communicated.

Ghanaian health policy expert and NEF fellow Dr Aku Kwamie captured the thrust of the “Changing the way we learn” topic, arguing for a fluid approach to science curriculums that focussed on multiple interventions in the teaching sector, and included the family, government and the individual motivation of teachers and their students.

Ghanaian health policy expert and NEF fellow Dr Aku Kwamie

“We need to re-respect the teaching profession,” Kwamie said. “We need to develop reflexive thinking in our teachers and students. This takes collaborative effort of government, teachers and every stakeholder in this sector. We must respect our teachers and remember they have dreams, aspirations and families.”

Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and President-elect of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering Jose Moura said that teachers needed to instill a “fearless feeling that failing is not an issue”.

“We need to instill in them the audacity of failure, of trial and error,” Moura said, adding that in the era of big data and the growing ability to capture large amounts of information, the focus needed to be on building structures to nurture scientists that can interpret and apply the data.

Senegal’s Minister of Higher Education and Research Mary Teuw Niane titillated the audience when he suggested that witchdoctors used binary mathematics to make their predictions, before turning to the serious issue of developing indigenous knowledge systems and languages to teach the science and STEM subjects at an early age.

Manifesto for smart cities

“We must see cities as living systems,” declared Professor Eliane Ubalijoro of McGill University at the panel discussion on how urban planning, technology and scientific research could be combined to create smart and sustainable cities. According to World Bank data no country has ever attained middle-income status without urban population growth. Africa’s urban population is currently estimated at over half a billion, matching growth rates seen in Asia. Urban growth however is not always painless for policymakers and the general public.

Jean-Philbert Nsengimana, special advisor to the Executive Director at SMART Africa, said the goal was to build cities where “citizens, leaders and policy makers use data to make cities safe, efficient, liveable and sustainable”.

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