Challenges and Prospects of Advancing Science and Technology in Africa: The Case of Rwanda

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Science  24 Oct 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5901, pp. 545-551
DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5901.545

I was delighted to participate in the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and have the opportunity to highlight Africa's and Rwanda's challenges in using the power of science and technology to transform our societies. I believe that all nations must relentlessly build world-class knowledge institutions that create a robust stock of scientists and researchers, foster a dynamic private sector in which industries nurture innovative talents for prosperity creation, and establish professional public services managed by insightful policy-makers who actively promote science and education.

There can be no better inspiration than the United States. What we seek to achieve in Africa and in Rwanda is what is taken for granted in the U.S.: the continuous expansion of knowledge and innovation that lead to even greater prosperity through a triangular relationship between government, business, and academia. This multifaceted relationship is evident in the entire value chain of education from elementary school to tertiary level, and subsequently to the transfer of skills and knowledge in industry and workforce.

How, then, are we in Africa to create an environment that encourages the harnessing of science and education, which in turn permits a more rapid socioeconomic transformation? More specifically, what socioeconomic development choices have we made in Rwanda, and how are we progressing in utilizing education and science to achieve them?

The challenge on our continent is that each of the three players—government, business, and the university—has yet to consolidate their roles into an interdependent relationship that links demand and supply of scientific and technological innovations on a scale needed to transform our societies. This partly explains why Africa remains impoverished and trapped in the trading of raw materials and natural resources, thereby transferring the more wealth-creating aspects of a value addition to developed countries. Innovative companies fail to emerge due to the low level of domestic processing. The government's role in promoting education and science both in industry and knowledge institutions remains feeble. Meanwhile, African universities have become almost irrelevant to our socioeconomic development, resulting in perpetual decline and brain drain as capable scientists and professionals leave the continent for better opportunities. The point here, however, is not to lament this condition, but rather to share with you what we are doing about it in Rwanda.

Let me first acknowledge that, in our country, we have neither a dynamic private sector that constitutes a strong demand factor for science and technology, nor strong knowledge institutions to meet such a demand. We do have, however, a developmental vision and a commitment to achieving it. Over the past 7 years, we have been laying the foundation for education and science to play their rightful roles in realizing our goals. As the strongest of the actors in development, Rwanda's public sector will continue to play a leading role for some time, while other pillars gain strength. Our modest progress in building this foundation may be summarized as follows:

First, we believe that “business as usual” in terms of depending on an economy based on raw material exports will merely entrap us into poverty. We must transcend this mindset and practice. With our objective of becoming a middle-income country by the year 2020, we reasoned that not only would we have to modernize our agriculture for value-added exports, but also to enter “nontraditional” economic niches, such as finance, high-end tourism, and the information and communication technologies (ICT) sectors.

Second, we concluded that Rwandans themselves constitute our principal national asset. We therefore had to refocus our education so that it can provide the people with the requisite skills and knowledge to become a viable multifaceted human capital. That is why we have consistently increased our education budget; about 25% of our national budget now goes to formal and nonformal education, constituting the largest single component of Rwanda's annual expenditure.

Third, we made primary-school education free of tuition fees in 2004, and this policy was extended to the first 3 years of secondary education as of last year. The goal is to enable all Rwandan youth to access basic education. Ninety-six percent of primary-school-age children in Rwanda now have free access to education, a statistic that we are determined to improve, in addition to working harder to improve the quality of our education. It is in this context that the teaching of mathematics and sciences at all levels of our educational system now constitutes a national priority.

Fourth, we have concurrently established and strengthened tertiary education to provide knowledge and skills in areas critical for realizing our socioeconomic development objectives. Institutions for this sector include the Kigali Health Institute, the Kigali Institute of Education, and the Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, among others. The National University of Rwanda also continues to undergo capacity development, especially in the teaching of science subjects.

Lastly and more directly related to the promotion of science, we have increased our expenditure for this field. Today, 1.6% of our gross domestic product supports this effort. Our target is to increase this to 5% by the year 2012. We have also established a ministry in charge of science and technology, which, in turn, has elaborated a strategy to ensure the achievement of the above efforts.

What are the results so far?

More and more Rwandans are literate, and these trained citizens are contributing to the rise of a more dynamic and nontraditional private sector that is increasingly playing a more substantive role in our economy. For example, tourism has already surpassed tea as one of Rwanda's leading economic subsectors. With more focus on strengthening the different clusters of tourism, we believe this sector will soon become a vital export niche.

But it is the ICT sector, led by mobile telephone technologies, that confirms our belief in pursuing nontraditional economic development pathways. Consider, for instance, the fact that the subscribers of the leading mobile phone company numbered about 320,000 in 2006. This number almost doubled last year to about 613,000, and the number of subscribers is projected to increase to one million by the end of 2008. This company, which is a joint venture between Rwandans and a South African firm, has become the largest taxpayer in our country. And the ICT sector in general has surpassed all other fields to become the leading wealth creator in our country.

The multiplier effects on the rest of Rwanda's private sector have been significant, especially in service industries including advertising agencies, printing companies, public relations, radio stations, and newspaper businesses. We have also recently privatized the national telephone company with the goal of transferring business operations from government to the private sector and to promote innovative foreign investments. In terms of ICT infrastructure expansion, I should note that our global system for mobile communications (GSM) network now covers 82% of Rwanda, while a fiber optic backbone rings our capital city, Kigali. The overall objective is to link all Rwandan towns and districts by the year 2009, which will greatly improve service delivery to rural areas, especially in health and education.

I would like to conclude on the following note. Advancing science in the developing world is vital for creating an engaged, prosperous, healthier, and peaceful world. Africa is no exception, and we Africans must lead the way promoting education, science, and technology to urgently enhance our prospects for improving lives. It is evident that social, economic, and political development processes in Africa remain uneven with occasional setbacks, but we must keep the steady course of using the powerful tools of science and technology.

We have made a good start in Rwanda, but challenges clearly remain. Among them is the human factor. Because we have started from a particularly low base, enabling our universities and tertiary sector to provide capable professionals to power our development process is no easy task. I am certain that AAAS has a role to play in this effort. I have requested the Rwandan minister in charge of science and technology to work with AAAS closely and tap into the American network of scientists and educators to improve our science and teaching institutions. We should strive to make this relationship a two-way endeavor. For example, Rwanda's rich biodiversity could provide American scientists with considerable research opportunities. I look forward to our continued partnership.

Comments delivered at the 2008 AAAS Annual Meeting.

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