Gone but not forgotten: Africa’s science talent

Image copyright PA Image caption Nigeria’s Rotimi Olowo, among the continent’s stars of the sciences, is planning to leave Two of Africa’s leading maths and science minds are leaving the continent in the next…

Gone but not forgotten: Africa's science talent

Image copyright PA Image caption Nigeria’s Rotimi Olowo, among the continent’s stars of the sciences, is planning to leave

Two of Africa’s leading maths and science minds are leaving the continent in the next year.

Chinese students, Rotimi Olowo, a French-Nigerian from Nigeria and Mahamed Sacirbey, a Libyan-Algerian from Tunisia, are both leaving for the west.

They will join a list of visiting scientists (all from outside Africa) which has fallen significantly since 2013, according to UNESCO.

This may be a reaction to falling world recognition of Africa’s scientific achievements, or it may be symptomatic of a deeper problem, warns Africa Science Monitor .

Are Africans no longer considered scientific leaders? Are there skills gaps? Do researchers play their part by applying to do what the others are doing?

Not only science, but all other disciplines are affected, Dr Ahmmed Hassan says. A researcher and former Nigeria media affairs minister, he is Africa Science Monitor’s founding director.

“After years of fighting for that right for all of us to be regarded as leaders, science is now catching up,” he says.

“But that’s an expensive product. Once you find a path to produce that leadership, then you have to start recruiting abroad.”

“Sometimes it’s like an exchange programme,” Mr Hassan explains. “It’s something that’s expensive, because we’re seeking a talent that’s maybe bound by educational background, research background, the access to technology.”

“So, sometimes you have to find their intellectual pathway, then you have to turn that to the benefit of the society, and that would be financially expensive. Which doesn’t happen often.”

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Ouarzazate’s Heba Elgosa has led a drive to develop skills and create jobs in her small town

Economics and other public policy initiatives in countries like Liberia and Nigeria may also be to blame, Dr Hassan says. And often, they are allied to the UNESCO, World Bank and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

These are often international organisations which fund research projects, including Malaria Research Studies and Training (MARTHA), which sponsored the scholarships that led to the student departures.

Prof Elgosa is aware of the contradiction.

“What I have always said is that even as a mother, when we see our children departing for the middle and West, we are seeing a genius transfer. But we are also saying that we are brain deprived,” she told The Independent.

“We are coming back with great human resources, I wish the same thing would be done to Africa, because it is an ethical matter. If you don’t give it to your own children, you don’t expect us to fight for it for you. Otherwise it is crazy.”

“We are not bringing everything into the west – everything here comes from Africa.”

Another Nigerian, Prof Frank Ilankwa, who chairs the university programme in environmental science at University College, London, says a lack of funding was a major challenge for professors in the UK.

“There is no money available to try and establish what Africa needs,” he says.

“The government focus is to try and create the trade networks, as opposed to trying to develop the institutions.”

Prof Ilankwa believes some of the reasons for the African exodus from science are cultural.

“For me there is a lack of understanding in terms of Africa’s scientific excellence,” he says.

“The residents of western countries like the United States, in particular, think that all Africans are rock stars, that they are all geniuses.

“There is very little understanding of what Africa is doing, and the opportunities that are being held back in Africa. The light is now on and hopefully the countries will start to make some progress.”

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