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3 Questions: Calestous Juma on African development

MIT event spotlights new approaches to economic growth on the continent.
Calestous Juma
Calestous Juma
Photo: Martha Stewart/Harvard Kennedy School

How can Africa find new ways to spark economic growth? That is the focus of a wide-ranging public symposium hosted by the Center for International Studies as part of its Starr Forum event series. The event will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 24, from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. in the Whitehead Institute’s McGovern Auditorium, and is organized in collaboration with the MIT Africa Interest Group. MIT News discussed the issue with Calestous Juma, the event’s moderator. Juma is the Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, and professor of the practice of international development at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Q. You have worked with the African Union as a high-level advisor to develop its new 10-year Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa, which is a focal point of tomorrow’s Starr Forum symposium. What are some of the distinctive features of this roadmap, regarding the contemporary challenges of growth across the continent?

A. The key distinctive feature of the strategy is the recognition that Africa cannot sustain economic growth and promote prosperity without significant investments in technological innovation. It a departure from traditional growth strategies that focus on raw material exports. This is a bold attempt to reposition Africa as a player in the global knowledge economy. It emphasizes the strategic role of technological innovation in addressing critical challenges such as meeting human needs (such as food and health), improving international competitiveness through trade in manufactured goods, and protecting the environment.

To address these challenges, the African Union focuses on three key areas. The first is to build infrastructure — mainly energy, transportation, water and sanitation, irrigation, and telecommunication. Poor infrastructure is a key obstacle to Africa’s economic development and affects activities ranging from agriculture to health and scientific research. 

Second, Africa will need to upgrade its technical competence and create the skills needed to respond to emerging economic and environmental challenges. This will be done through improving science, technology, engineering, and math education. 

Finally, the strategy outlines measures for promoting technology-based entrepreneurship as the most efficient mechanism for translating technological ideas into goods and services for economic transformation. It underscores the critical role that high-level leaders, especially presidents and prime ministers, can play in fostering interactions among key actors such as government, academia, and business in promoting innovation. 

Q. A variety of countries in Africa have new initiatives to build larger university infrastructures. What are some of the crucial factors in making these efforts successful — and can scientists and technologists use this process to build new bridges to political leaders in Africa? 

A. The first major step in building the technical competence needed to propel African economies is to recognize legacy policies where universities predominantly teach but do undertake much research. National institutes, on the other hand, carry out research but have limited teaching functions. One possible way to solve this problem is to create a new species of universities that combine research, teaching, and entrepreneurial activities under one roof. 

A greater degree of institutional innovation will be needed to align higher technical training with development objectives. This will involve reforms in curriculum, pedagogy, and location of universities to enable them to link more directly with the productive sector. Creating new technology-based universities will complement existing universities that have played an important role in building state institutions. What is needed today is to foster innovation and entrepreneurship. 

The reforms needed to reposition higher education institutions will require broad dialogue between government, academia, and the private sector. Governments will need to create mechanisms such as national science and technology academies, as well as offices of science advisors to heads of state. Issues for which governments need urgent advice include the long-term implications of the advent of online education.

Q. We face a variety of challenges when it comes to sustainability, whether relating to food security or climate change, land use, and other issues. In what ways does Africa have novel opportunities to merge innovation and sustainability? 

A. One of the main advantages of being a latecomer is the ability to harness new technologies that have a smaller ecological footprint than older vintages. For example, Africa’s ecological footprint would be much larger if it met its current communication needs using landlines instead of mobile connectivity. This logic of technological leapfrogging has yet to be pursued as policy strategy to promote sustainable development.

There are a number of emerging candidate technologies that help Africa reduce its ecological impact. Transgenic industrial crops such as cotton that have been engineered to resist pests have been demonstrated to reduce the use of harmful pesticides. This technology has been commercially adopted by only three African countries: South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Sudan. Other technologies that could have similar ecological benefits include the use of polymers for the slow release of fertilizers and pesticides. 

Many of these transformational technologies also disrupt traditional social arrangements, and are therefore often associated with public controversies. Promoting ecologically sound development strategies will therefore need to take into account an improved assessment and management of technological risks. Africa has the opportunity to start from scratch by leapfrogging the legacy technologies that the industrialized nations are now burdened with. Mobile phones represent a powerful metaphor of how to think about the ecological function of technological leapfrogging in Africa.

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