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High-Ranking East African Officials Describe Science-Driven Efforts for Stability and Economic Growth

Five neighboring East African nations are moving to address poverty, environmental degradation, and other problems by undertaking ambitious efforts to collaborate in developing their expertise in science and technology.

High-ranking science policy leaders from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda, in a public discussion at AAAS, detailed work by their governments and the government of Burundi to use science diplomacy and regional cooperation to address a range of challenges, from wildlife conservation and management of natural resources to building a regional fiber-optic network and an educational system that can provide S&T training to serve their nations and others in Africa.

The countries are sharing in the growing global interest in international science cooperation, using formal treaties, alignment of national policies, and informal networks to bring those ideas to bear on issues that in the past have weakened individual nations and fanned regional tensions.

“We have cooperation with countries like South Africa,” said epidemiologist Shaukat A. Abdulrazak, CEO and secretary of the Kenya National Council for Science and Technology. “We have expanded the horizon—we have linked up with countries like France, India, Japan and others. Most importantly, we also felt that people in our countries need to talk with each other—in our region this has been a major challenge.

“The issue of integration is extremely important—important in the sense that we do not need to reinvent the wheel, important in the sense that we face more or less the same challenges in the East African region, important in the sense that even the languages that we have are somehow related—all of us here are able to speak Kiswahili.”

Romain Murenzi

Discussion moderator Romain Murenzi, the former minister in Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s office in charge of science and technology, said the East African nations “have identified scientific cooperation as a key feature of the regional integration.

“The challenges that East African community and the world in general are facing—such as global climate change, energy security, food security, infectious diseases, clean water, population control, and conflicts, to name a few—can only be dealt with the help of science and technology,” said Murenzi, now a senior scholar at AAAS and visiting professor at the University of Maryland Institute of Advanced Computer Studies. “No country can do it alone.

“To meet these challenges, it will require skilled human resources and adequate scientific and industrial infrastructure. Therefore, cooperation in training at all levels, but at the Master and Ph.D levels in particular, is paramount. This can be done by concentrating the required resources in designated centers of excellence and developing a high mobility and exchange of human capital by creating visiting professorships, research visiting positions in the region, and student exchanges.”

The 90-minute event on 9 December, organized by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, focused on the advances and challenges facing the East African initiative to use science and technology as an engine for sustainable economic growth and development.

In addition to Abdulrazak and Murenzi, the panel featured: James Kimonyo, an engineer and Rwandan ambassador to the United States, who read a statement from Charles Murigande, Rwanda’s minister of education; Peter Ndemere, executive secretary, Uganda National Council for Science and Technology; and Hassan Mshinda, director general of the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology. A closing summary was delivered by Peter Msolla, Tanzania’s minister for Communications, Science and Technology. The audience included Nina Fedoroff, science adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State; Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS; and Alfred Watkins, science and technology program coordinator at the World Bank.

The event kicked off an effort by the Center for Science Diplomacy “to develop better understanding of how science cooperation is contributing to broader economic or political integration in various regions around the world,” said Tom Wang, director for international cooperation at AAAS. “In the case of East Africa, it’s clear that they see educational, scientific, and technical cooperation in the region as essential for addressing their development priorities and challenges. The recent seminar should lead to further discussions on how the United States, Europe, and others can better engage with the countries of East Africa through regional mechanisms.”

Regional Challenges, Regional Solutions

The five East African nations cover 1.8 million square kilometers, with a population of 126 million. In the past, speakers said at the AAAS event, the five nations were driven apart by host of factors: regional disputes, internal strife, poor leadership, and the dynamics of the Cold War, among others.

But poverty has been a profound factor in limiting progress. Murenzi said the combined gross domestic product for Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi was $60 billion in 2008; average per capita income is $424, he said. While the world’s leading developed nations invest as much as 3% or more of GDP in research and development, Msolla said that among African nations, “most are closer to 0.1%.”

The nations also are facing environmental problems such as deforestation and declining wildlife populations. Lake Victoria—bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, with Burundi and Rwanda close by—is a crucial regional waterway and one source of the Nile, but it is increasingly plagued by pollution and invasive species that disrupt its ecosystems.

And yet, there are signs of significant potential and emerging change. GDP growth hit 6.8% in 2008, Murenzi said. The nations are working together, sometimes with partners in Europe and the United States, to fight infectious disease like malaria and the Ebola virus, to protect the endangered mountain gorillas and other wildlife, and to manage Lake Victoria. And they’re building a fiber optic network to link researchers, businesses, schools, medical centers, and other users across the region.

Each of the five nations have science and technology ministries; both individually and collectively, they have expressed a concerted commitment to basing future development of human potential and economic growth on science, technology, and innovation—a knowledge economy to compete globally in the 21st century.

Kenya, for example, has a blueprint for science, technology, and communication development in its Kenya 2030 plan, and the nation’s lawmakers are moving to revamp the higher education, science and technology, and technical education sectors to support its goals.

Rwanda, similarly, is forging a future based on the development of its human resources. Rwanda’s 2020 Vision development framework sets transformation to a knowledge-based economy as a key goal, with emphasis on science-related development. President Kagame has pledged to double research spending from the current level of 1.6% of gross domestic product to 3% in the years ahead.

Murenzi listed meteorology, air transportation and civil aviation, information communication technologies, and management of trans-border shared resources such the Nile Basin as some science and technology issues that will benefit from greater regional scientific collaboration.

The Role of S&T in Regional Cooperation

These efforts and others are supported by regional and continental diplomatic agreements and initiatives, speakers told the AAAS audience.

Efforts at regional cooperation have been extensive, but intermittent, since the early 1900s. But in 1999, the five nations joined to form a new iteration of the East African Community (EAC), an organization that has been central to the S&T cooperation effort. The treaty that formed the EAC has an entire chapter devoted to the role of science and technology cooperation among the nations.

At the same time, Murigande’s statement noted that the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development have formed the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology, which brings together all S&T ministers in member states to develop and implement a Consolidated Plan of Action for science and technology.

That effort, Murigande added, “constitutes a framework of strengthening Africa’s capacities to harness, apply, and develop science and technology in order to eradicate poverty, fight disease, stem environmental degradation, and improve economic competitiveness.”

Peter Ndemere

Ndemere said that the East African Science & Technology Commission is “in advanced stages” of its development, and will focus regional efforts and harmonize each nation’s policies to employ S&T research promote development. A “very strong objective” will be to establish regional centers of excellence for advancing science, Ndemere said.

For example, the government of Rwanda is working with the African Development Bank and Carnegie Mellon University (based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) to develop a center of excellence in information and communication technologies and engineering. Among Carnegie Mellon’s contributions will be to supply teachers, library facilities, and technical assistance for the campus.

An African Agenda, Set by Africans

Throughout the AAAS event, the East African science policy leaders explored a range of challenges and possible means of addressing them. Exchange programs, for example. Or indices—the speakers agreed on the need to develop ways of reliably enumerating and evaluating the region’s needs and progress, even if that means departing from the conventional measures used by the developed world.

But what emerged from the discussion was a sense that systemic issues like poverty, education, S&T capacity, and brain-drain are related, and that all of these challenges must be addressed together.

Hassan Mshinda

“What I think is the major barrier is the lack of resources—financial resources, human resources, human infrastructure,” said Mshinda, the director general of the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology. “Some of the infrastructure that exist in our universities and research institutions, they are not in very good condition. This is a major problem. These are the major areas whereby we can partner with other people or other initiatives to push this agenda forward.”

While the lack of resources is a key factor that drives scientists to leave the country in search of research opportunities, other factors make the dynamic more complex.

Political stability is crucial, Murenzi said; the years of terror under Ugandan leader Idi Amin and in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in the first half of the 1990s, many researchers fled from those countries. “Sometimes you want to stay because you feel safe in your own country,” he explained. “Bringing peace and security in the region makes intellectuals in the societies want to stay. This is something very, very important.”

The speakers noted significant efforts to expand education, including technical institutions and universities focused on science and technology—Masinde Muliro University of Science and technology in Kenya, which has grown from a small college founded in 1977 to a two-campus university critical to the region’s scientific enterprise.

And yet Msolla, Tanzania’s minister for Communications, Science and Technology, described another fundamental challenge—one familiar to many nations in the developed world, as well.

“A lot of youths have lost interest in science—we must be asking ourselves why,” he said in his closing remarks. “Right from the roots, from primary to secondary education, science, technology, and innovation are not well-articulated. But also we have expanded education so much… without the necessary infrastructure. There is a lack of science teachers, a lack of laboratories, a lack of libraries.”

Msolla urged the expansion of training programs for science teachers. “It’s needed to strengthen science education at all levels,” he said. “You cannot do much if you don’t have the right kinds of teachers, in the entire education system, all the way through the universities.”

Shaukat A. Abdulrazak

Among the young scientists that graduate with degrees in science or engineering, there is a powerful draw to Europe and the United States. Research opportunities are more abundant and pay is much higher. “I know the U.S. is a place, if you’re sharp and smart and good, they’ll be able to take you,” said Abdulrazak, the leader of Kenya’s National Council for Science and Technology. “In my former position as deputy vice chancellor of a university, I’m sorry to tell you we had to sack 20 Kenyans because they didn’t want to come back.”

African science policy leaders clearly understand the allure of foreign opportunities, but they are grappling to change the gravity and keep talent at home. And that is a point where international collaboration can be important, they said. For example, some urged U.S. universities and government programs to expand financial and other incentives for African scholars to return to Africa after they study or work for a time in the United States.

Several speakers also suggested that the U.S. universities, government agencies, and businesses expand their research enterprise in African countries and employ African scientists in those projects.

Though Uganda’s universities are producing more master’s degrees and PhDs, there’s not much contract research between U.S. companies and Ugandan partners, said Ndemere. “Uganda sees this cooperation between the U.S. and China and India and other Asian countries, but not very much on the African continent. At the end of the day, that’s where we would want things to go, rather than churning out masters and PhDs who run away.”

Overall, the vision articulated by Ndemere and others at the discussion departed sharply from historic patterns in which the United States or Europe would provide aid or other funding and then set the agenda. The East African leaders are seeking more international research cooperation and partnerships, but with the initiatives designed to support goals set by Africans themselves.

“We would like to say this very clearly,” said Abdulrazak. “It is high time that Africa comes up with its own agenda. Let it be developed by Africans—and assisted by our good friends here.”


Read more about AAAS’s science and technology engagement with Rwanda (here, here, and here).

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.


AAAS Senior Scholar Romain Murenzi, formerly Rwanda’s minister of Science, Technology, and Scientific Research, delivered a commencement address on 19 December 2009 to the first graduating class at the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, Nigeria. Read the full text.