Building Wakanda: Africa’s search for the next Einstein

Africa’s top scientists gather in the Rwandan capital of Kigali to focus on the future of science in the continent.

Rwanda hosts the second edition of the Next Einstein Forum [Yarno Ritzen/Al Jazeera]
Rwanda hosts the second edition of the Next Einstein Forum [Yarno Ritzen/Al Jazeera]

More than 1,600 people have gathered in the Rwandan capital of Kigali for the second edition of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF), a three-day science and technology event.

Rwanda has been lauded for its educational reform over the past 20 years, having invested heavily in becoming a knowledge-based economy in which information and communication technology (ICT) play a big role.

“When we started investing in ICT around the year 2000, many people thought it was a joke. They would say ‘how can you start investing in ICT when people have no food, no education, no access to hospitals?’,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said during his keynote speech on Wednesday.

“The answer at that time was that Rwanda didn’t have the luxury of setting priorities, everything was a priority for us. And ICT related to every other aspect we were thinking about.

“We are not prioritising ICT and leaving others behind, we tried to create a balance and share the limited resources we had,” he said.

“I think we have been vindicated in this regard.”

Rwanda has experienced remarkable economic growth since 2000 [Yarno Ritzen/Al Jazeera]

And according to World Bank data, Kagame’s sentiment is justified.

Since 2000, the country has experienced remarkable economic growth, with gross domestic product (GDP) rising from $1.7bn in 2000 to $8.4bn in 2016 and the number of students, teachers and schools rising rapidly as well.

However, Rwanda can be considered to be an outlier; today, only two percent of total global scientific research output comes from African countries.

NEF’s goal is to increase that number significantly in the coming years and decades.

To do so, the organisation, which was founded in collaboration with the African Institute for Mathematics and Science (AIMS), offers fellowships for researchers, grants for promising technologies and support for local and regional projects that increase Africa’s footprint in the scientific field.

This year’s main topic was connecting science to humanity, and the majority of the panels and discussions focused on subjects like healthcare, the future of education and closing the gender gap.

The agenda

Discussions ranged from how to how to change the mindset of young children so that they aspire to become scientists, to how technologies like blockchain might improve the quality of life in Africa.

The event also saw the launch of Africa’s first scientific journal, the Scientific African.

During the Challenge of Invention to Innovation (ci2i) competition, researchers from across Africa were invited to pitch inventions addressing health challenges and climate change.

It was during this ceremony, at the end of the three-day event, that the event’s topics of health, education and the gender gap all came together.

One of the winners, Rachel Sibande from Malawi, who pitched a system that used maize husks as biofuel to generate electricity, dedicated her prize to all women in Africa.

“This is for all the women and girls of Africa that are working to innovate and change the world,” Sibande said.

Conrad Tankou from Cameroon developed a system using mobile phones to diagnose breast and cervical cancer for women in rural areas, to whom he dedicated his win.

There have been revolutions around the globe, and Africa has always been left behind. This time, we should not miss out seize this moment.

Paul Kagame, Rwanda's president

“We are coming for you. We’re coming to save your lives,” Tankou said.

Although the scientists, policymakers and event organisers all agreed Africa has a bright scientific future ahead of it, they also acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done and major hurdles to be overcome.

“This is a long-term goal,” Zomahoun said. “This is not a project that we will complete in three or five years.”

It was no surprise then that the next NEF was already announced. In 2020, the event will be held in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

President Kagame, who attended the first NEF in 2016 in Dakar, Senegal, said this is an opportunity all countries in Africa should focus on.

“There have been revolutions around the globe, and Africa has always been left behind,” Kagame said. “This time, we should not miss out seize this moment.”

Jonathan Esole, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the NEF fellows and an expert in string theory, put it into words more suitable for a younger generation.

Referencing the recent superhero movie Black Panther, which shows the fictional African country of Wakanda as the most technologically advanced civilisation on earth, Esole simply said one thing.

“We are building Wakanda here.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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