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Africa's Innovators for Africa's Challenges

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March 08, 2016

Last week at a panel about innovation and the future of Africa, Gilbert Kokwaro of the Strathmore Business School said, “The very first innovation is leadership with a dream.” The goal of Grand Challenges Africa, the brand new initiative that we represent and that hosted the panel, is to help innovators from across the continent lead bold and dream big.

 

Grand Challenges Africa is a partnership among the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). There are times when partnerships are just funding arrangements, but this one represents something more—deeply shared values and a joint understanding of how progress is made.

 

Twelve years ago, the Gates Foundation launched Grand Challenges, its flagship innovation initiative. Over the years, Grand Challenges has supported thousands of innovators with ideas that range from reimagining vaccine science based on new discoveries to inventing better condoms that men will want to use.

 

Gradually, the foundation learned that even when it comes to the most purely scientific innovations, it helps to understand the local context of where the innovations are to be used. As a result, the foundation started looking specifically for ideas from innovators in developing countries (including, as of this writing, 380 from about 30 African countries). Eventually, it started forming partnerships with scientific institutions in other countries, including Brazil, China, and India.

 

Meanwhile, as the Gates Foundation was refining its approach, the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) was celebrating almost 30 years of doing something very similar. As AAS fellows, hundreds of top scientists from across the continent and across disciplines had turned the AAS into a hub of thinking about innovation. The AAS and its fellows advocated a science-led development agenda for Africa; as a way to further this agenda, and with help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, the UK Department for International Development, and NEPAD, they created AESA last year to manage several programs designed to build scientific and technical capacity in Africa.

 

Bring these two stories together, and what you get is Grand Challenges Africa, which is now also receiving support from Grand Challenges Canada and the United States Agency for International Development. At Grand Challenges Africa, we believe in two things. First, we believe that innovation—ambitious problem-solving that crosses the traditional boundaries of hard and social science in creative ways—is essential to improving people’s health and well-being around the world. Second, we believe that the best way to make life better for Africans is to support great ideas from African innovators.

 

Most attendees at the inaugural meeting of Grand Challenges Africa were Africans who’d received grants from the Gates Foundation through its Grand Challenges program. It was an impressive group. To name just three: a parasitologist working on a new malaria diagnostic that doesn’t require electricity or a microscope, an AIDS researcher who started a pioneering school-based nutrition program in hard-hit areas, and a microbiologist using photography to help Rwandan women farmers build self-confidence and develop leadership skills.

 

Soon, Grand Challenges Africa will start the process of determining its unique priorities and making new grants to African innovators. Over time, what will emerge is not just successful innovations but a community of innovators dedicating their careers to innovating for impact. Through the other Grand Challenges programs, this African community of innovators will be linked to similar communities from around the world. We can’t think of another global network dedicating to spreading ideas about how to help the poor in quite the same way.

 

We saw the power of this community at last week’s conference when we ran a workshop designed to identify key areas of need and start a debate about strategies for addressing them. Essentially, we were crowd-sourcing a development agenda from hundreds of African leaders, and the insights we gained from those dialogues will drive our grantmaking priorities over the next few years.

 

Our hope is that Grand Challenges Africa helps African scientists not only do great work but also advocate for more funding. AESA is creating the eMarketplace to link grantees to potential funders, but there is a larger challenge: building up African science so that it’s able to deliver the solutions the continent needs. Less than one-half of one percent of global R&D funding goes to Africans. The ratio of African scientists and engineers in the population is at least 20 times lower than in industrialized countries. It’s simple: without the funding and without experts, African science cannot realize its full potential to change the continent.

 

But the innovators in Nairobi last week are a positive leading indicator. The research budgets may not be there yet. The science scholarships may not be there. But the brilliance and ingenuity and passion are, and they are there in abundance. With a little support, that brilliance and ingenuity and passion will take flight, and Africans will change the world.

 
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