Our youth dividend will usher-in the next Africa renaissance

We need to engage in frank conversations about young African scientists’ challenges in their career development, says the writer. Picture: ANA Archives

We need to engage in frank conversations about young African scientists’ challenges in their career development, says the writer. Picture: ANA Archives

Published Jul 14, 2023

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Five university students, finalists in a campus-wide competition at Addis Ababa University’s College of Natural and Computational Sciences, step forward to collect their prize money and certificates.

Their group project, an androidbased system, was designed to send health appointment reminders and health tips by text to postnatal women in five major Ethiopian languages.

The selection committee, made up of leading faculty members, had recognised the potential for significant positive impact that such a system could bring to the health of women and their infants.

So, what happened? It took some time for the university and its co-host to collect pledges for funding to cover living expenses and stipends for the five students during the year that they needed to implement their project.

By the time these funds were secured, three of the finalists had accepted entry-level jobs and the remaining two were focused on finding work.

This is a common story, innovation dying before it has realised its full potential, leaving the young innovators with dashed dreams.

Given the opportunity, African youth have stepped up to innovate and create African solutions to emerging demands for essential health products and services, including taking the lead in the frontline response to Covid-19.

Their enthusiasm to be part of the solution during the pandemic was unparalleled. However, they must overcome hurdles of challenges to access financial grants, in-kind resources, mentors, and collaborators to bring their innovative ideas and projects to fruition.

The African region comprises 15% of the world’s population, yet only accounted for 1.1% of global investments in R&D in 2016. This stark disparity highlights the urgent need to prioritise and allocate resources to support youth-led research and innovation initiatives.

Most likely, our five young scientists’ story could have had a different ending if the right infrastructure was established to cultivate and push forward budding innovation. Or by simply being in another part of the world.

The university would have been able to extend seed money and access to relevant companies and venture capitalists in return for partial royalty rights. In turn, the young innovators would have been able to focus on calibrating their product or service offerings to bring them to the market instead of worrying about how they can earn their livelihood.

In my view, we need to take an interlinked ecosystem approach if innovation in science and technology is to truly serve us in alleviating poverty, combating diseases, and addressing inequalities.

Young African entrepreneurs from all walks of life need to have access to technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and higher education institutions. According to the UN, 600 million jobs have to be created over the next 15 years to meet youth employment needs.

Mutually beneficial productive linkages need to be established between institutions and industries, innovation labs and companies so that young people may benefit from exposure to hands-on training, internships, mentorship, and fellowships, as well as the networks enabling them to apply their STEM skills productively once they graduate.

I’m an advocate for partnerships and have witnessed the unprecedented positive effects of working together.

Increased collaboration between universities, research institutions, and the healthcare industry to provide resources, mentorship, and funding to young innovators should be encouraged to harness this untapped potential further and unlock the innovation potential of young African entrepreneurs.

This is demonstrated through initiatives like the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA)’s #AlwaysInnovating Campaign, which lifts the curtain on the long journey of innovation, revealing the expertise, collaboration and perseverance it takes to turn an idea into a real-world medicine or vaccine that brings solutions to patients in need.

Remarkable innovations spearheaded by young people have already emerged across the continent. Science must be positioned as part of the solution to reduce youth unemployment.

We need to engage in frank conversations about young African scientists’ challenges in their career development.

We can scale up the R&D ecosystem across Africa by establishing stand-alone University/TVET-linked innovation hubs and incubators to foster research, development and commercialisation of health solutions and highlight innovations through different modalities and initiatives.

We already have examples of capacity-building programmes such as the Africa Young Innovators for Health Award, spearheaded by IFPMA and Speak Up Africa, which, among other things, builds youth’s skills in applying intellectual property rights, enabling them to protect and scale up their innovations.

On this World Youth Skills Day (July 15), let’s actively nurture these conversations, as we continue to work with our young people to reduce access barriers to the world of work, ensuring that skills gained are relevant, recognised and certified.

By harnessing our collective will, know-how, and belief in our beloved continent’s potential, I am confident that our youth dividend will usher-in the next African renaissance. Supporting and incentivising young African entrepreneurs can help move the continent forward.

Chibale, is the founder and director of the H3D Drug Discovery and Development Centre at UCT.

Cape Times

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