Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Science And Technology In Africa

Poku Adaa

The solutions to the problems of health, low agricultural productivity, inadequate shelter, etc., lie in the effective application of science. Poku Adaa discusses the apparent lack of scientific and technological advances so far and reports on three international organisations which aim to coordinate scientific research and channel it to combat deprivation and poverty in Africa
The problems of industrial under-development in many countries as the southern hemisphere and especially in Africa, can be attributed to the fact that in these countries, science and technology have never had any really strong base.

In the attempt to industrialise, many industries have sprung up which can be described only as spin-offs of parent companies in industrially developed countries with no room or provision for innovation, research and development. This is a trend which has impregnated the balance of international trade for many years with no shift from the one-way flow of new products and processes from developed countries.

African countries, like many other developing countries have remained perpetual suppliers of raw materials since time began. Yet the deprivation and poverty in Africa are, for all in tents and purposes, capable of being solved with the aid of scientific and technological tools and know-how available today. Moreover, there are Africans with scientific training and expertise who are capable of initiating co-operative programmes to tackle the chronic problems of disease, hunger, shelter, energy and industrial development.

The reality, however, is that African scientists face immense and deeply entrenched problems. There have been many distractions and disruptions in African countries. Witch-hunting of academics, political ineptitude and instability, greed and grandiose luxury and rotten leadership, all stand in the way of scientific achievements. The climate for genuine scientific thinking for real research work and for organising channels of scientific communications are difficult and near impossible to attain.

Funds for research are a mere pittance since private industries have no scope for research while public industries, research institutes and universities depend on the whims of politicians who, in many cases, releg. ate scientific and technological development to a no-go area. More importantly, the vital links between the centres of research and industry are very weak or non-existent.

There is also the problem of the relevance of research to the needs of a community. Science is the conglomeration of theories, facts and ideas proven from observation and study while technology is the development of new processes based on the tenets of science.

The technology for heavy industries like ship building and vehicle manufacture is capital intensive and therefore beyond the reach of many developing countries.

Science results in the recording of knowledge and retrieval of the data accumulated for conversion into information. Thus to apply science to arrive at technological use, the data should be useful. The situation with Africa and other developing countries is that scientific research often ends up with knowledge that is less useful technologically.

In other words, while there may not be a shortage of data, useful data is often scarce or jealously guarded. The overall result is that scientific research which goes on profusely in a multitude of institutions, falls short of technological follow-up.

Usually research is aimed at recognition via publication in international academic journals and promotion up the professorial ladder. A careful read through the Biological Abstracts will reveal a wide range of materials by African scholars.

There was one Study into neonatal tetanus in Ghanaian children, another investigation into the mercury poisoning of Ghanaian farm erms who have eaten coloured maize and yet another Nigerian don on the effect of ionospheric waves on growth of certain plants.

Quite apart from these, there is also the naked lack of motivation for the academic community, either financially or even socially. The scientist has only the praise of the international academic community to be his propelling force to do something. Locally there is no reward. It is a stale career, a morose and bland existence.

All these contribute to the frustration of many young and able scientists who opt to leave their countries to seek professional recognition, proficiency and lucrative positions or at worst to enter non-scientific careers like commerce and management. There is certainly a lot of scope for application of basic natural and applied sciences to problems in agriculture, medicine, environment and development of natural resources. Africa is a storehouse of drugs and medicines locked up in a myriad of plants and vegetation. An infant who has gum sores or teething pains only needs the sap from the hedge plant rubbed over his gums and the pain will disappear.

There are many opportunities for exciting research into the processing of natural products to make them contribute better to today's living. In Africa today, plantain and banana stems are felled during harvesting and left to rot and yet the science of pulping fibres and agricultural residues to produce paper and tissue are routinely applied in rural communities of India and south east Asia. I have said in this journal and elsewhere already the potential of deriving yeast and alcohol from palm wine.

Furthermore, doesn't it take sixty years or perhaps more for the mahogany, growing wild, to attain maturity and how revolutionary it will be to have it grown in say five years instead, or will shea butter ever grace breakfast tables refined and sweet smelling? These are only a few examples of the areas in which science can unleash a wind of change which will benefit society at large.

But it is not too late for African scientists to gird their loins and be up and doing their bit however the difficulties. Already, the stench of this situation has hit sharply the noses of people on the continent and elsewhere around the world and a sense of awakening, a glimmer of hope seems to be gathering momentum.

The International Organisation for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD) is one institution which has defined and concrete objectives and the potential to brighten the dark horizons of Africa's development. This organisation which was launched by UNESCO in 1981 is a non-govern mental organisation which is determined to bring together chemists from developing countries to pool their skills together for the development of the continent's natural resources.

The organisation is dedicated to the application of chemistry to the economic, social and scientific needs of developing countries and is made up of a community of people who are committed to the belief that science, transcending national and political boundaries, can provide tools to bridge the gap between the rich and poor nations.

The programmes of the organisation focus on chemical education and training, relevant research needs, analytical services and dissemination of information through international and regional networks in developed and developing countries. Already seminars and workshops have been going on month after month. One of them particularly dealt with cooperation in medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry and brought together many chemists from many parts of the world.

The International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) is another organisation which seeks to bring science and technology closer to Africa's needs by working to initiate, design and coordinate transnational scientific research projects. In particular, it lays emphasis on the need for greater flow of scientific knowledge towards the path of Africa's development. The ICSU is also a non-govern mental body composed of several international unions, national member bodies and individual associates.

Of particular importance is the ICSU's Committee on Science and Technology in Developing Countries which was founded in 1966. With assistance from UNESCO, it has initiated networks in Biosciences and Geosciences to develop these fields towards the benefit of developing countries.

The third international organisation dedicated to the development of poor countries is one which is due to become operational next year. This is the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB). Biotechnology is the application of scientific and engineering principles to the processing of organic and inorganic materials by certain biological agents such as enzymes and plant or animal cells to provide goods and services.

The most identifiable, traditional example of biotechnology application is the production of bread from cereal flour using yeast. The brewing of beer is another example. It can be useful in the production of vaccines for preventive health care for humans and for control of diseases in animal husbandry. The idea for the formation of ICGEB arose out of an international meeting held in Belgrade recently.

The Centre, when it becomes operational, hopes to conduct fundamental research into the potential application of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology to specific needs of developing countries. It plans to provide training to scientists from developing countries and form a nucleus of an international network of communication and data exchanges.

Whilst these organisations appear to be striding towards a common objective, their specialities and compositions differ. The IOCD and the ICGEB are specialist in intent, the latter confined to the science of chemistry and its related applied forms such as pharmacy, biochemistry, chemical engineering, while the former is concerned with the sciences of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. The ICSU, however, embraces all sciences including, curiously enough, Psychology and is open to national bodies and institutions. The OICD and the ICGEB are constituted of individual members who may deal directly with one another.

Caution however needs to be sounded. It would be sad if these organisations turn out to be a cunning way to allow entrepreneurs in developed countries access to raw materials from Africa. Nevertheless, it is always fair to consider the issue positively and allay scepticism, for after all, it is only through genuine cooperation that Africa can develop its natural resources.

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