[SPEECH] Building Science (STEM) in Africa

Lucy Quist delivered the following address at the recently organised Allotey Workshop; a public lecture in memory of Professor Francis Kofi Ampenyin Allotey, Ghanaian mathematical physicist and former President of AIMS Ghana. The event took place in the University of Liverpool and hosted speakers from the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) network like Mama Foupouagnigni – President of AIMS Cameroon and Bubacarr Bah – German Research Chair of Mathematics with specialisation in Data Science, AIMS South Africa.

“I am an unashamed advocate for greater participation in science and STEM overall. Corporate experience has taught me that young people insufficiently engage with STEM. Life experience has taught me that we live in an age where the fundamental pillars of sustained prosperity are built on a foundation of STEM.

Have you ever heard people talk about the luck of the draw? I view this through the lens of where people are born. Too many people in Africa are born into circumstances that mean they have limited opportunity to realise their potential and create prosperity for themselves. Prosperity that means they thrive through life and not just survive it. Notice that I said ‘too many’ and not ‘all’.

It is with great pride that I join you today at the Allotey workshop. I had the great fortune to meet and do some work with professor Allotey. It was a surreal experience for me.

Growing up, some of us – interested in science and mathematics – heard about this professor at the University of Science and Technology in Ghana. He was this mythical person who was said to have such computational brain power that he could calculate anything in a heartbeat. So, imagine my sheer joy when I had the chance to work side by side with him.

I could not believe the news when I heard it. Professor Allotey was no longer with us. But he hadn’t been ill. You mean the brilliant gentleman who always returned a missed call and replied an email was no longer with us? It was a day of great sorrow and I pray that God rests his soul in perfect peace.

Today, in his memory, I am proud to talk about science and STEM as a whole in Africa. I am not an academic, so I will not attempt to present you with academic information. I am here as a business woman whose career is based on her love of STEM and who understands people. A business woman who has seen a number of countries in Africa and one who has witnessed firsthand what STEM can do for this great continent.

Allow me to share some thoughts on how we can build STEM in Africa.

Which Africa?

There is no such place as Africa. What we call Africa is 54 countries with a total of 1.2B people who speak about two thousand languages. Communication is compounded by the fact that countries in Africa have to deal with imposed national languages that have no bearing on their culture and traditions.

To build STEM in each of these great countries we must disaggregate the continent; set each country apart and approach each with absolute regard for their unique culture.

Why are culture and traditions relevant?

Once upon a time there was a woman who lived in southern Ghana. This woman was fortunate to be the oldest child of a prosperous chief and farmer. She spent her entire life nurturing her extended family. She had 9 children – only 3 survived into adulthood. But at the time that she lived losing children was seen as ‘normal’.

Overtime, this woman who had never stepped foot in a classroom, developed the ability to diagnose and treat most ailments her family members suffered.

One of her many chores was fetching water from her village stream. This stream had the clearest filtered water you can imagine. She had a very special relationship with the stream. She would literally talk to the stream when she went to fetch a bucket of water. She would carefully clear the stream of weeds and anything else that would hamper flow. She allowed that stream to thrive. Only her youngest child was formally educated. All her grandchildren, on the other hand, were formally educated. How does one translate what is known traditionally in one language to young people educated in a completely different language? The answer is that it is virtually impossible. The healing undocumented science of this woman was completely lost on her grandchildren.

Quite frankly, as I watched my grandmother clear the stream I used to undeniably think she was out of her mind. Who talks to and clears a stream?

Her conservation efforts were lost on me. The same way that every time she told me the best way to whiten teeth was to use charcoal I thought she was being ridiculous. My educated mind could not relate to the wealth of traditional knowledge my grandmother had stored up. Today, it is with great shame that I say that the stream no longer exists. My grandmother died in 2004. Today the greatest craze in beauty and cosmetics is charcoal. Toothpaste, mask, conditioner you name it. It is all about charcoal. Why did I not appreciate my grandmother’s knowledge and understanding of science? Is it just because she did not eloquently articulate her thoughts in English that I so comfortably speak?

Narrowing it down!

You may be thinking, ‘but Lucy, you paint a picture of what looks and sounds like a typical African story. Why do you make the case for 54 countries’. And I would say, ‘the little science I know tells me that even vegetation varies across a single country. There is more to the African scientist than what a single view will show.

It is imperative that if we are to develop STEM in Africa we recognise and build on the uniqueness each country presents. Of course, there will be similarities but why do we assume sameness when we never assume that the French perspective and the British perspective are the same? Aren’t they both European?

In fields such as medicine, we must encourage African scientists to tap into local know-how and enrich their knowledge with new findings. We must encourage them to make their use of science relevant to problem solving in their countries.

So where do we start from?

We each must act as ambassadors of the fact that the African scientist is as worthy a scientist as any other. That the African scientist’s discoveries are relevant. We must willingly tell the world that the intelligence of our colleagues is not because they are simply outliers on a continent of low IQ, as many will have us believe, but they are rather representatives of what is possible when opportunity meets ability and ambition. That the mix of human ability is no different on the continent we call Africa from the rest of the world. But yes, the mix of opportunity is certainly different. Today we honour a man who is the embodiment of these facts. A man who started his journey of discovery in his father’s bookshop. Professor Allotey discovered the world of books as he dusted the books he was in charge of. Or should I say that books discovered him, with gratitude that someone of his mental capacity would read them?

Science must be relevant to Africa

Science has propelled the world to unprecedented heights of development. Well I say the world but of course, I mean the rest of the world, not Africa.

We need to reorient ourselves towards an Africa where each country builds the capacity to realise the potential of its human capacity to create the volume of scientists that is need to realise real development.

In Ghana it is estimated that 20% of students study science. Only 20% of those are girls. These numbers are not completely off the mark from more established countries. In fact figures show that in the UK increases in STEM participation at University is largely driven by international students. The real issue is that establishing countries like Ghana do not have the luxury of trending in average figures of participation. The scientific community, together with its partners, must work with this ambition in mind.

The goal must change from finding the few outliers that showcase ‘the good ones’ to creating a critical mass that is realised through large scale academic engagement that encourages curiosity. Curiosity and the willingness to learn continually. A continuous learning that normalises the application of science. The application of science that enables African countries to develop real solutions and technologies. It is time for audacity. An audacious ambition to participate in creating an Africa of 54 countries where everyone truly has the opportunity to prosper.

The formula is pretty simple. Good healthcare means a mother can healthily carry a baby to term. It also means the baby will survive childhood. Good education means they will have a chance to explore their talents (everyone has something to offer) and realise their potential. Education that is inclusive and makes the study of science fun. Realised potential should be exercised through job opportunities that provide the stability for the individual to live progressive lives. So why is what I say simple yet not being actualised?

I have found that around the world, including in Africa, we have subconsciously come to assume a narrative that a little is ok for the African. The focus is on improving current circumstance and not on what should be.

So I wonder; what will happen if in each of the 54 countries supported this audacious ambition by a business plan? This plan would determine when and how much it would cost to build the foundation for prosperity that will touch all of its citizens. What would happen if lessons learnt from one location were genuinely shared across the scientific community in Africa?

A vehicle for knowledge sharing within the continent and not just outside the continent.

I was not present at the formation of AIMS, but I know many of these ideas informed and inspired Prof. Neil Turok to lay the foundation for the African Institute for Mathematical Science.

AIMS has centres in 6 African countries, each location boasts a pan-African student body. The beauty of scientific brains from across the continent converging on six locations to spend a year studying together. A year spent on a journey of discovery that includes celebrating their African dreams. Celebrating their dreams and preparing together to realise the hope of those dreams.

AIMS presents us all with a vision being realised. However, that vision needs more participation. It requires our collective involvement to ensure that change is realised on a large scale. A scale that allows the establishing countries of Africa to take advantage of these people. Scale that allows established businesses on the continent to find local talent to drive their operations, rather than persistently importing a large number of talented people which systemically undermines real capacity building.

We need scientists who understand the world around them and technologists who will innovate in a modern context. We need creative engineers who can make things and mathematicians who will provide the models not only to identify root causes but also provide the metrics to achieve scale. We need more of these people locally.

I have no doubt that you identify with many of the points I have raised. I have a simple ask. I ask that you filter out the narrative that says a little better is enough. That you believe and act with me to create the bold new normal of prosperity for a continent of 1.2B people that have the same aspirations as anyone else in the world.

Thank you.”

IMAGE SOURCE: Graphic Online (graphic.com.gh)

Lucy Quist[SPEECH] Building Science (STEM) in Africa