My work in research and
development has taken me many places – from South Africa, where I grew up, to
Seattle and way beyond, and from the private sector to one of the largest
nonprofits on the planet. Throughout this journey, I have found this constant: innovation
is one of our most powerful tools to transform lives.
Investments in science,
technology and entrepreneurship have enabled many of today’s global health and
development successes, including an astounding reduction in child mortality and
a broadening of access to clean water and sanitation. They have helped to
create jobs and wealth, especially for young people. And they have put us on a
path toward a life of dignity for all.
This is a watershed year in
international development. We face a moment of transition from the Millennium
Development Goals to a new global framework for sustainable development. The
ambitious targets to be rolled out in New York later this month are achievable –
but only if we take advantage of the tenacity and ingenuity of the world’s growing
community of innovators.
Local leadership is crucial in
this effort. No one is better positioned to tackle a challenge than the people whose
lives have been affected. The Gates Foundation’s approach to Africa is built on
this premise. And it’s what makes me so optimistic about last week’s launch of
Grand Challenges Africa.
of Grand Challenges Africa represents a promising new effort by African
leaders to build local scientific capacity and shape the continent’s R&D
agenda. It owes its existence to the leadership of local institutions: the New
Partnership for Africa's Development, a strategic framework for pan-African
socio-economic development charged by African health ministers with the
development of a new research agenda, and the African Academy of Sciences,
where Grand Challenges Africa will be housed. It will be led within AAS by a
new innovation platform, the Alliance for Accelerating the Excellence in
Science in Africa (AESA), which will oversee a variety of programs supported by
the Wellcome Trust, the U.K.’s Department for International Development and
Grand Challenges Africa will
build on a strong foundation of Grand Challenges investments on the continent
over the past several years. Between the Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges
Canada and the U.S. Agency for International Development, several hundred
African innovators have already received grants and are doing tremendous work
developing low-cost, locally appropriate solutions to problems posed by poor
sanitation, malaria and many other challenges.
Early next year, AESA will
convene these grantees to discuss lessons learned and get their input on what
Grand Challenges Africa should prioritize. These grantees have already shown
themselves to be creative, powerful advocates for the future of African science,
and I look forward to hearing their recommendations.
In the long run, based on this gathering
as well as ongoing discussions with Grand Challenges partners and African
stakeholders, AESA will develop, launch and manage challenges and requests for
proposals to address some of the biggest challenges that are preventing African
countries from reaching the sustainable development goals.
This task will be new for AESA,
but it’s not new to Grand Challenges. In the past few years, the foundation has
been fortunate to partner with Brazil, India and South Africa to establish
country-led Grand Challenges programs. These countries have applied the Grand
Challenges model to their national development priorities: pre-term birth in
Brazil and South Africa, sanitation in India. Their programs, along with
similar ones in Thailand, Israel, Peru, Japan and elsewhere, will provide
models and potential partners for Grand Challenges Africa.
As these programs grow and begin
to collaborate more regularly, momentum will grow for the creation of a
reciprocal support network that will help set an innovation agenda for the
Global South and perhaps make it easier for domestically sourced innovations to
To achieve transformational change, African
scientists and governments must shape the continent’s R&D agenda. AESA and
Grand Challenges Africa are important steps in that direction, and welcome
signs of a new era of African scientific leadership.