Tag Archives: Science

Science Has the Power to Boost Agriculture in Africa

The agricultural sector is the world’s largest single employer. It provides jobs for more than 40% of the global population. It’s also the largest source of income and jobs for poor, rural households.

It is, by and large, a successful sector. There have been huge improvements in yields and food production over the past five decades.

More cereals have been produced annually during the past 40 years than in any earlier period. It is also predicted that more grain will be harvested in 2017 than in any year in history. This is as a consequence of scientific advances, increased fertiliser use and favourable rainfall patterns.

Many of these gains have been felt in Africa. Improved seed varieties, new fertilisers and pesticides, improved credit and market access have all played a role. So have scientific innovations such as improved and more reliable weather prediction, improved drought tolerance and increased resistance to extreme climatic conditions, and cross-breeding for improved efficiency.

And yet hundreds of millions of people in Africa are going hungry every day. Globally, 800 million people are categorised as chronically hungry. Around 30% of them – 227 million people – live in Africa.

So where is the disconnect between food production and food security in Africa? Why does the continent spend about US $40 billion a year importing food when so many of its own residents are farmers? And how can this situation be changed?

At least part of the answer lies with science. There are already several excellent examples of ways in which science has led to dramatic increases in food production and moved farmers in some countries closer to self-sufficiency.

Science at work in Africa

A project in Uganda provides an excellent example. Ugandan scientist Robert Mwanga won the 2016 World Food Prize for his work in addressing Vitamin A deficiencies. Without Vitamin A, children are more likely to develop entirely preventable blindness. Working with people in Uganda’s poor, rural areas, Mwanga set about substituting, at scale, white sweet potato – which is low in Vitamin A – with a Vitamin A-rich alternative.

In Ethiopia, Gebisa Ejeta was awarded the 2009 World Food Prize for his work on improving the food supply of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa by increasing the production of sorghum hybrids resistant to drought and the parasitic Striga weed.

None of these projects would have been possible without governments supporting the research that lay behind them. But much more needs to be done. Research shows that investing an extra US $88 billion in agricultural research and development globally over the next 15 years could increase crop yields by 0.4% each year.

This could save 80 million people from hunger and protect five million children from malnourishment.

Africa is behind the curve on investing in research to improve agriculture outputs. Even though all 54 countries of the African Union have signed up to successive commitments – starting with the Maputo Declaration in 2003 – to increase their agricultural research budgets to at least 10% of their national budgets, few have actually done so.

At the last count only 13 had met or exceeded the 10% target in one or more years since 2003.

There’s an added problem. Africa relies on external capacity for most of its scientific research in agriculture. This has undermined its capacity to use science to deliver solutions for problems unique to Africa. This needs to change. Scientific research should be Africa-based, owned and led. Investment will be key – and so will solidarity among African scientists and governments.

Using science to benefit people in Africa

In 2014 African heads of state renewed their commitment to the agriculture sector when the signed the Malibu Declaration. The core of its agenda is to connect science to benefit society by:

  • Identifying broad areas of science that can be developed in partnership
  • Strengthening national science and technology institutions
  • Building human capacity
  • Diversifying funding sources to support science
  • Facilitating partnerships between African institutions at a national and continental level
  • Sharing information, technologies, information, facilities and staff for common challenges and opportunities, and
  • Creating a favourable policy environment for science

In addition to this, governments need to step up to the plate and increase their research budgets. Combined with the commitment to work together, the hope is that science will increasingly be used to create a more productive, efficient and competitive agriculture sector across the continent. This is critical to improve rural economies, where most people in Africa live.

Source: The Conversation

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​How Africa Led the World in Science and Technology

“When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”

Africa has the world’s oldest record of human technological achievement: the oldest stone tools in the world and evidence for tool production by our hominin ancestors have been found in eastern Africa and across Sub-Saharan Africa respectively.

Despite notable African developments in medicine, mathematics, metallurgy and technology in the past, today Africa lags far behind other regions of the world and gives too little or no attention to science and technology.

Let’s take a look at some historic technological achievements in Africa:

Mathematics

Ancient Egyptian mathematicians had a grasp of the principles underlying the Pythagorean theorem. They were able to estimate the area of a circle by subtracting one-ninth from its diameter and squaring the result.

Timbuktu in Mali was a major centre of the sciences. All of the mathematical learning of the Islamic world during the medieval period was available and advanced by Timbuktu scholars: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

The binary numeral system which lead to the development of the digital computer was widely known through Africa before it was known throughout much of the world.

Astronomy

Egyptians were the first to develop a 365-day, 12-month calendar. It was a stellar calendar, created by observing the stars.

Even today, South Africa has cultivated a burgeoning astronomy community. It hosts the Southern African Large Telescope, the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.

South Africa is currently building the Karoo Array Telescope as a pathfinder for the $20 billion Square Kilometre Array project.

Metallurgy

Iron use, in smelting and forging for tools, appears in West Africa by 1200 BCE, making it one of the first places for the birth of the Iron Age.

Besides being masters in iron, Africans were masters in brass and bronze. Ife in Nigeria, produced life like statues in brass, an artistic tradition beginning in the 13th century.

Benin also in Nigeria mastered bronze during the 16th century, produced portraiture and reliefs in the metal using the lost wax process. They also were a manufacturer of glass and glass beads.

Medicine

The knowledge of inoculating oneself against smallpox seems to have been known to the Akan of Ghana and Ivory Coast. A slave named Onesimus explained the inoculation procedure to Cotton Mather during the 18th century; he reported to have gotten the knowledge from Africa.

In Djenné, Mali, the mosquito was identified to be the cause of malaria, and the removal of cataracts was a common surgical procedure. Based on Timbuktu manuscripts, the dangers of tobacco smoking were known already to African scholars.

Ancient Egyptian physicians were renowned for their healing skills, Herodotus remarked that there was a high degree of specialization among Egyptian physicians, with some treating only the head or the stomach, while others were eye-doctors and dentists.

Ancient Egyptian surgeons stitched wounds, set broken bones, and amputated diseased limbs. Around 800, the first psychiatric hospital in Egypt was built by physicians in Cairo.

Around 1100, the ventilator was invented in Egypt.In 1285, the largest hospital of the Middle Ages and pre-modern era was built in Cairo, Egypt, by Sultan Qalaun al-Mansur.

Tetracycline was being used by Nubians, based on bone remains between 350 AD and 550 AD. The antibiotic was in wide commercial use only in the mid-20th century.

The theory is earthen jars containing grain used for making Nubian beer contained the bacterium streptomycedes, which produced tetracycline. Although Nubians were not aware of tetracycline, they could have noticed people fared better by drinking beer.

Successful Caesarean section was performed by indigenous healers in Kahura, Uganda, as observed by R. W. Felkin in 1879. European travellers in the Great Lakes region of Africa (Uganda and Rwanda) during the 19th century observed Caesarean sections being performed on a regular basis.

The expectant mother was normally anesthetized with banana wine, and herbal mixtures were used to encourage healing. From the well-developed nature of the procedures employed, European observers concluded that they had been employed for some time.

A South African, Max Theiler, developed a vaccine against yellow fever in 1937. The first human-to-human heart transplant was performed by South African cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard at Groote Schuur Hospital in December 1967.

During the 1960s, South African Aaron Klug developed crystallographic electron microscopy techniques, in which a sequence of two-dimensional images of crystals taken from different angles are combined to produce three-dimensional images of the target.

Africa Today

The coming of the Europeans to Africa hindered further scientific and technological advancement in Africa.

The continent still has great scientific minds: Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian won the 1999 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in femtochemistry, methods that allow the description of change states in femtoseconds or very short seconds; but 40% of African-born scientists live outside Africa because African countries invest too little or nothing in science and technology Research and Development.

Sub-Saharan African countries spent on average a meagre 0.3% of their GDP on Science and Technology in 2007. North African countries spend a comparative 0.4% of GDP on research.

Notably outstripping other African countries, South Africa spends 0.87% of GDP on science and technology research. Although there are many technology parks in the world there is none in Africa.

There are over 500 Science and Technology centres in the world but only two in the whole of Africa. This is how far Africa has fallen in Science and Technology.

Today, Africa is shadow of herself. The continent can hardly even show the remains of her glorious era of scientific and technological advancement, net even science or technology museums to showcase whatever remained.

​The general attitude towards science and the usage of the word ‘scientist’ in Nigeria

I remember in the days of my undergraduate industrial training in SheSTCo – a research institute in the capital of Nigeria, a professor rebuked a fellow trainee who referred to himself as a scientist during a seminar presentation. He said, “even with a master degree you are not even a scientist”.

In Nigeria, if you call yourself a scientist you are scolded. You are quickly attacked with questions like “you call yourself a scientist what have you discovered?” but the irony is that you hardly get this question if you call yourself a chemist, biologist, physicist or mathematician, probably only because they think you are only telling them what you studied in school.

As student and graduates of pure sciences, we ‘proudly’ call ourselves chemists, physicists, biologist or mathematicians depending on our disciplines because we have friends who call themselves economist, sociologist, accounts etc., but we barely call ourselves scientists. The word is too heavy for us.

In this society, the word, scientist can best be compared to words like astronauts, spaceship, or snow. Nigerians mostly use these words when referring to white people, advanced counties, or Hollywood movies and hardly when referring to the next Nigerian or Nigeria as a country because whatever these words represents are alien and transcendent to t majority of the Nigerian society.

When average Nigerians hear the word, scientist, the picture that comes to their mind is that of a white man in a white lab coat making big magical discoveries like time travel or a syrup that can make someone invisible. This is what Hollywood – the only teacher smart enough to tell them who a scientist is, taught them. With these picture in their head it becomes very difficult to see a Nigerian next door as a scientist.

Here, the most tangible science is seen as very abstract if not as magic hence the word, “oyibo magic”, meaning white people’s magic. Many Nigerians even believe discoveries and inventions by the advance world come from knowledge gotten from witchcraft. There is disconnect between the Nigerian culture and modern science.  One of the reason for this is that Nigerians are nurtured not to ask questions as children. They discourage curiosity making the saying, “curiosity killed the cat” very popular in the country. Secondly they hardly engage in endeavors without direct and immediate benefit.

They can’t relate well with the pure sciences because they can’t see any direct and immediate benefit in engaging in them. It is common to hear even a university graduate asking questions like, “why would anyone in his/her right senses attend a university to study chemistry”, biology, physics or mathematics? To them if is not medicine, engineering, computer science,  pharmacy or nursing, it is a waste of resources and a shortcut to poverty.

The Nigerian society relate well and better with science related profession like medicine, pharmacy, engineering, piloting etc. because these professions come with direct and immediate benefits. This mentality has resulted to a system whereby pure scientists are mostly trained to be teachers so as to train doctors, pharmacists, engineers, pilot etc. For this reason when an average Nigerian looks at those in the pure sciences all he or she sees is a secondary school teacher.

Education in Nigeria has too little to do with curiosity, hunger for knowledge or the need to solve problem. It is all about statues, titles and earning a living. Even the pure scientists in Nigeria are guilty of this. Most of them are in pure sciences today because they couldn’t get into medical or engineering school even after several try. After grumbling through school, many Nigerian graduates with science degrees find themselves in a dilemma. They learnt too little science in school and so cannot compete to become a lecturer or a researcher, and they don’t have the qualification for a non-science job.

Before coming to conclusion let’s have a look from another angle. By international standard are most Nigerian lecturers or researchers qualified to be called scientists? That is the question many Nigerians are asking. Lecturers and researchers in Nigeria are known to carry out research mostly for the sake of publishing articles required for job promotion. They are not driven by hunger for knowledge or desire to solve problems. Like the policy makers and bureaucrats, the pay so little attention to science development. Some would argue that the science practiced in the country is obsolete and insignificant. There is hardly any discovery from universities or research centers.

If Science is discovery, then where there is hardly any discovery there is hardly any science and where there is hardly any science there is hardly any scientist.