The founding president of African Academy of Science, Thomas R Odhiambo , has been working to evolve a framework necessary for stimulating technological development and environmental protection in Africa. Odhiambo, 66, an emeritus professor of insect physiology, University of Nairobi, Kenya, spoke to Austin Uganwa about the status of science and technology in the continent
On the agenda of the African Academy of Science:
The academy provides a forum for honouring scientists in Africa and thus boosts their morale. It also assists in integrating science with national development and helps in creating a forum where African scientists can develop academically. This is achieved through holding conferences, symposia, seminars etc. The academy publishes journals that are world-renowned. It also identifies centres of excellence in Africa and helps to develop them.
On why Africa lags behind in the field of science and technology despite the presence of several science-based organisations:
Africa inherited its research institutes from the colonialists. A few other research institutes created after African nations gained their independence were modelled on the old ones which did little beyond publishing their research work. This has created gaps for technological innovations, products, and prospects to emerge.
On how Africa can achieve a technological breakthrough:
Any country that has been able to become a major economic power through science and technology has always identified where its competitive power lies. It then puts its best talents and money there. Africa has not done this. It has taken a cue from the United Nations which does not work for Africa alone. It works for the entire world. So, the solutions that the World Bank , World Health Organization . United Nations Development Programme , United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and others are proposing are universal formulae and may be incapable of placing Africa in the technological lane. We have enough thinkers in Africa who should identify our comparative advantage so that we can go for it.
On how long it will take for Africa to achieve a significant breakthrough in science and technology:
We can achieve a breakthrough in 15 years, especially in the areas of medicine, environmental management, agriculture, fishery and forestry. In my home country, Kenya, I have done a survey and found out that the nation needs about eight years to do that. It all depends on the willingness of the government and citizens to make up their minds to achieve it.
On trained manpower in Africa:
There are many Africans who have the basic knowledge which can be used for pursuing specific missions. The important thing is fashioning out a goal. In fact, I have been trying this since five years and I am achieving some success. African nations do not have a clear view of what they want from their research institutes and universities. The universities are there not only to train individuals but to capacitate them to be able to take up any task. The quality of outputs of the universities should be consistent with the national goals.
On whether Africa should rely on the West for technology transfer or develop home technology:
One may develop technology from the traditional knowledge or start from a scratch. To me the argument on technology transfer is unproductive. African nations should see how they can achieve innovations.
On the brain drain in Africa:
I admit it is a serious problem and Africa should focus on it. I have spent three years with a research group studying this problem. Those who leave are the people we need most in our countries. The first form of brain drain was recorded during slavery. Africa has not made any attempt to gain from the knowledge of these people, now scattered in the western hemisphere, west Asia, and even Asia. We should be able to change our national laws in such a way that those who are outside the country are recognised and lured back home to work in conditions that are quite favourable.
On the environmental situation in Africa:
The environmental situation is still okay. We are fortunate that there are not so many industries as yet. But the way we are going we will be in real trouble in the next 20 years. Africa's indigenous system of environmental management was good but it was abolished during the colonial era. We have thus lost our tradition and we are not adopting the most modern system either. We are therefore heading for trouble. The trend is even more dangerous because we have heard how African governments have been allowing radioactive waste to be dumped in their countries. We do not have strict laws to deal with environmental issues.
On the food crisis in Africa despite numerous natural resources, rich soil fertility, and favourable climate:
The food crisis in Africa is not uniform. Countries like Botswana, Kenya, and Zimbabwe have been able to meet their food demands. It therefore depends on the management of economies. Food crisis in some part of Africa has been caused by the colonialists. This was because we grew crops that were needed in Europe for colonial enterprises and their prices were fixed by the colonial government which did not even meet the production cost. For this reason, many believed that agriculture was not a favourable area. This belief still persists and thus constitutes the key problem. However, I do believe that if we try to use our traditional knowledge, by modernising it, we can achieve food sufficiency in the 21st century.
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