In my previous posts, I have made reference to the facilitation that Nepad is doing to attract investment into African projects. But Africa needs much more than money and infrastructure. In order to transform its economies in a world fuelled by information and driven by knowledge, Africa needs to build on its knowledge capital.
The objective of this post is to articulate the need for growing a knowledge-based economy in Africa, whereby research, knowledge and innovation become central in paving the way to our development. A knowledge-based economy refers to an economy in which the production, exchange, distribution and use of knowledge is the main driver of economic growth, employment generation and wealth creation. Investing in education and knowledge generation and distribution in Africa means investing in human capital.
Universities and higher education have always been part of Africa’s history. The University of Al Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, opened in 859 AD, is considered the oldest university in the world. Al-Azhar University in Egypt, part of the larger complex of institutions associated with Al-Azhar mosque, currently enrolls 2 million students. This legacy is not, however, responding adequately to the challenges of modern Africa in either quantitative or qualitative terms. Unless deliberate and bold initiatives are implemented to reinvigorate higher education, science, technology and innovation on the continent, Africa risks losing out in the new economy.
Here are some worrying statistics based on current offerings. While a child in an OECD country runs an 80% chance of going to university, in Africa, it is only 6%. Limited support to research and development, outdated curricula and limited direct links between science and industry mean that we lack a competitive edge on a global level. Our universities need to produce knowledge, cutting edge research that allows us to solve everyday local problems and improve our lives across the continent.
This stride is in line with the significant shift in Africa’s development paradigm. Our attention is increasingly on Africa’s participation in its own development planning, on Africa’s ownership of its own development initiatives and the capacity building of our professionals. We need to build our own knowledge triangle between education, research and industry. In turn, this will create a solid connect between knowledge generation, its utilization, its transformation (including its products) into economic growth via the production of knowledge-intensive goods and services. This triangle needs, of course, to be supported by frameworks of good governance and appropriate government policies.
In 2017 we will need governments to champion and engage in human capital development, by prioritizing education and making funds available for formal schooling. There is also a key role for private firms and national innovation systems to play in encouraging investments in research and training. The role of intellectual capital cannot be underestimated in the rise of Africa in the 21st Century.