Life-saving science

2010-12-01 07:55

Ten years after the UN’s Millennium Development Goals were set, everyone is ­eager to ­pinpoint what will do most to power African progress.

Good ­governance and education are strong candidates. But for me, the single most ­versatile solution to Africa’s ­development challenges – from ­poverty and hunger to ­disease and resource ­scarcity – is ­science.

I am convinced that ­science and the innovations it ­inspires are ­critical to managing precious ­resources, mitigating ­the impact of climate change ­and putting Africa in the vanguard of the global transition to renewable energy.

Most of Africa has about 325 days of strong sunlight a year. That gives us huge solar power ­potential. Just last month, Africa’s first large-scale wind project was announced – a giant network of onshore wind farms in Cape Verde.

In the next generation, science and the best of new technology – from solar energy, biofuels and new medicines to greener ­consumer products – can help ­ensure not only that our continent develops, but that it does so ­sustainably, with communities and natural ­habitats protected and ­enriched by progress, not harmed by it.And if Ethiopia achieves ­universal enrolment in primary ­education, as I am convinced we will, my hope for those pupils’ ­future is clear – to be the next ­generation of African scientists.

But science for development in Africa must be a responsible ­science; one that is directed ­towards improving people’s lives, African-led, and vigilant about ­pre-empting risks and limiting ­repercussions; with social and ­environmental considerations built in from the outset.

That is why Africa’s first Green Chemistry Congress, hosted in ­Addis Ababa this month, is so ­important.

Green chemistry puts responsibility and sustainability at the top of scientists’ agenda, ­placing a ­premium on reducing the input of materials, energy and cost, preventing hazards, and ­minimising negative environmental effects.

The congress will bring together leading scientists under the Pan Africa Chemistry Network, a ­partnership between the Royal ­Society of Chemistry, Syngenta (a large global agribusiness company which markets seeds and pesticides) and ­African scientists.

African ­scientists coming ­together to ­develop their own ­innovative ­solutions to the ­continent’s ­challenges is what ­Africa’s future should hold.Change is afoot elsewhere too. Increasingly, we are seeing science and technology power development across the continent, with Africans leading the way.And so they should.The growth of science must not fuel brain drains or impose outside solutions.

Innovation based on local ­experience is on the rise. Recently, Kenyan ­government meteorologists collaborated with ­traditional ­rainmakers in the Luhya ­community, who for generations have used changes in nature to guide their advice on when ­farming should start; to identify what and when to plant at a time when weather patterns are ­becoming more unpredictable due to climate change.

This is a great example of ­science-based knowledge and ­traditional, “local” knowledge ­coming together to benefit the community.

And the continent’s intellectual fire power is increasingly lined up behind tackling the full gamut of Africa’s development challenges.

Take hunger: with 70% of ­sub-Saharan Africa’s population ­engaged in agricultural work, ­making the sector more productive is critical to development.

Scientists, policymakers and ­development professionals have forged a consensus on the need to increase productivity through the practical application of ­technologies such as fertilisers, new seed varieties and pesticides.

Learning lessons from Asia’s ­agricultural revolution, Africa’s will be uniquely green – avoiding Asia’s mistakes in terms of environmental impact, and using technology both to drive food productivity and ­safeguard biodiversity.

With Ghana and Malawi as its models, Africa’s green ­revolution is now well under way. Ghana has raised its food ­production per ­capita by more than 80% since the 1980s, and is largely ­self-sufficient in staples.

Take resource scarcity: South ­Africa has developed the world’s first 100% synthetic coal-to-liquid jet fuel for airplanes, thereby ­saving scarce non-renewables.

Ethiopia saw the launch of the first batch of the Solaris Elettra 85 electric car this year.

Or take disease: the Kenya

Medical Research Institute has ­designed a tool that uses weather

predictions, information about mosquitoes’ reproductive ­mechanisms, and data on ­geographical formations to predict where and when surges in malaria will occur.

Let there be no doubt that ­development-oriented science has enormous potential for Africa. Across the continent, governments are increasingly recognising that.

Uganda announced a 30% wage increase for scientists in its 2010/11 budget – a vital investment when considering that scientists can earn six to 10 times more if they leave Africa.

But by insisting that the science the continent hosts and develops is – like green chemistry – ­responsible; African governments,

scientists and businesses can

ensure it delivers for all of Africa.

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