Romain Murenzi: The Importance of S&T Investment for Africa’s Development

[AAAS Senior Scholar Romain Murenzi, formerly Rwanda's minister of Science, Technology and Scientific Research, delivered this commencement address 19 December 2009 to the first graduating class at the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, Nigeria. Murenzi is also a visiting professor at the University of Maryland Institute of Advanced Computer Studies.]

Honorable minister of Finance of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,
Honorable managing director of the World Bank and chair of the Mandela Institute,
President of the African University of Science and Technology,
Provost of the African University of Science and Technology,
Distinguished faculty,
Dear students,
Distinguished guest,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am deeply touched and humbled by the great distinction and honor the Board of the African University of Science and Technology, Abuja-campus, has accorded to me by requesting me to deliver a keynote address at this first graduation of the university. This is a historic event. It’s amazing how time goes fast. I remember just five years ago, in January 2005, we gathered in this great city at the ceremony approving the establishment of the university campuses in Abuja and Arusha. I was then minister of Education, Science, Technology, and Scientific Research of the Republic of Rwanda.

I remember very well that event because two things happened. I met Dr. Ben Turoc, an ANC [African National Congress] MP and the father of Professor Neil Turoc, the founder of the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). Later that year I was invited to the first graduation of the Africa Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). I have been involved with AIMS since then. I also met Professor Mohamed Hassan [executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) and president of the African Academy of Sciences] and later that year I was nominated and elected as TWAS Fellow.

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

My appreciations go to the students who are graduating today. You are the reason we are all gathered here. You must be proud of your achievement. You are the first-born children of this university and the grand vision that people like Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Professor Wole Soboyejo, and Dr. Fofack Hyppolite have been fighting for. It is said: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” (–Luke 12:48). I wish you success in your journey as scientists and engineers. I also thank the faculty for the dedication and the good example they have set to students.

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

On this great occasion, allow me to speak on “the importance of science, technology, and innovation for poverty alleviation and long-term economic development,” linking with the vision of the university. This is not a new theme. But it is always up to date. As we are winding the first decade of the 21st century we should ask ourselves: How will the end of the upcoming decade and the next be like for Africa? How will Africa cope with world challenges such as:

  • global climate change;
  • energy security;
  • food security;
  • diseases;
  • clean water;
  • population control; and
  • conflicts.

There is one single weapon/treasure that will make Africa win this long-term war against poverty. Its name is “knowledge.” I have always been fascinated by Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables. In particular, I find “The Farmer and His Sons” to be relevant to our topic. “A FATHER, being on the point of death, wished to be sure that his sons would give the same attention to his farm as he himself had given it. He called them to his bedside and said, ‘My sons, there is a great treasure hid in one of my vineyards.’ The sons, after his death, took their spades and mattocks and carefully dug over every portion of their land. They found no treasure, but the vines repaid their labor by an extraordinary and superabundant crop.”1 Here we have the three things: Capital, Labor, and most importantly, the Knowledge of farming.

In 1956-57, the American economist Robert Solow showed that most of the contribution to the growth of the U.S. economy from 1909 to 1949 was due to scientific and technological progress. Actually, he estimated that only 12.5% came from capital and labor and the bulk of it—87.5%—coming from knowledge.2 It is has become an accepted fact that investment in science, technology, and innovation is crucial for long-term economic growth. The example of comparing Ghana (or any country in Africa, except South Africa) and South Korea has always been given as illustration of this fact. But, the one I like is the comparison between the U.S. and Argentina. They were at par around 1820. But the U.S. has become the giant that we know through the continuous investment in knowledge and innovation.3

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

If Africa has to avoid being an accessory of history, the continent and every country in the continent must adopt clear a long-term policy and strategy for science, technology, and innovation. This policy should have four objectives as it is already known.

First, invest in knowledge acquisition and deepening. This starts at primary school level and continues to secondary school and undergraduate tertiary. What kind of science in primary, what kind of science in secondary, and how many enrolled in science and engineering in undergraduate tertiary?

To give an example from Rwanda that I know very well, investment has been made in education at all levels over the last 15 years. Primary enrollment going from approximately 940,000 in 1994-1995 to 2.3 million in 2009, reaching more than 95% of net enrollment. In 2008, the country adopted a very aggressive policy on science education in primary: The number of courses was reduced in order to concentrate on mathematics, science, and English. In secondary school, the enrollment increased from approximately 50,000 in 1995 to more than 500,000 in 2009. Higher education enrollment increased from 3000 in 1995 to 60,000 in 2009. A 20-time increase!

Second, investment must be made in creation of new knowledge. This encompasses basic and applied research in all areas of science and engineering. The continent can’t continue to rely on other people’s solutions.

Third, knowledge must be transferred from laboratories/universities to real-life problems and challenges. All sectors of our life:

  • Health: maternal health, child mortality, infectious disease;
  • Water: clean drinking water and sanitation;
  • Environment;
  • Information Communication Technologies;
  • Transportation;
  • Agriculture and Animal Husbandry;
  • Energy;
  • Manufacturing.

We can’t really compete in all these without strong scientific and technological capacity.

Fourth, the culture of innovation must be developed. Our young people should be encouraged to innovate. Freedom, free speech, and free thinking coupled with entrepreneurship and knowledge have brought to life most of the innovation that the world is enjoying today.

Let’s hear what Bill Gates has to say about innovation: “For centuries people assumed that economic growth resulted from the interplay between capital and labor. Today we know that these elements are outweighed by a single critical factor: Innovation. Innovation is the source of U.S. economic leadership and the foundation for our competitiveness in the global economy. Government investment in research, strong intellectual property laws and efficient capital markets are among the reasons that

America has for decades been transforming new ideas into successful businesses.”4

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

In conclusion, Africa has the required natural resources, from minerals to biodiversity, and the required raw human capital in its youth to be part of the global economy at the end of the next decade. But for this to happen, a massive investment must be made in education, science, technology, and innovation. This is why I commend Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and his team for bringing to fruition this first step the grand vision of establishing African institutes of science and technology throughout the continent. By doing so, you are following the footsteps of the late Professor Abdu Salam, Nobel Prize laureate from Pakistan, who established the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) and the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). Professor Salam believed that scientific and technological knowledge is a “Humankind Heritage.” I very like much this quote from him: “The rapid growth of modern science started about 300 years ago in 17th century Europe. Since then science has built up a substantial body of knowledge both about the world as it now is and about the history of man, the earth, the solar system and the universe. Through modern science, technology and medicine, hundreds of millions of people are alive today who would previously have died in infancy or childhood.”

Salam was also firm believer that “developing nations needed to help themselves and invest into their own scientists to boost development and reduce the gap between the North and the South.”

Therefore any country pre-occupied with changing the livelihood of its people from poverty to better conditions of living must appropriately invest in science, technology, and innovation

I thank you all and wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  1. ^ Jean de la Fontaine:”The Farmer and His Sons
  2. ^ Robert Solow, “Technical Change and the Aggregate Production function”
  3. ^ Volume Title: Straining at the Anchor: The Argentine Currency Board and the Search for Macroeconomic Stability, 1880-1935
    Volume Author/Editor: Gerardo della Paolera and Alan M. Taylor
  4. ^ Bill Gates, “How to Keep America Competitive”

Return to the article, “High-Ranking East African Officials Describe Science-Driven Efforts for Stability and Economic Growth