The Exchange: When Do African Problems Need African Solutions?

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim and Ory Okolloh discuss the continent's brain drain and debate the best ways to keep talent at home.


According to the World Bank, 12 percent of humanity lives in Africa, yet it produces only about 1 percent of global research output. This gap persists because governments don’t emphasize science and technology, says 2015 Global Thinker Ameenah Gurib-Fakim. As president of Mauritius, the trained chemist has prioritized “science diplomacy” and helped establish a scholarship for local intellectuals. 2010 Global Thinker Ory Okolloh has built a career determining how technology can improve lives; she’s currently at the Omidyar Network, previously worked for Google, and co-founded Ushahidi, a crowd-sourced platform for crisis reports. Gurib-Fakim and Okolloh recently connected to discuss harnessing the energy of the world’s youngest continent and whether “African solutions to African problems” is a dated trope.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim: To me, the Global North and Global South divide today is all about science, technology, and innovation. The only way to shorten the gap is to start valuing Africa’s best resource, which is its human capital. We need to consider this now because Africa is the youngest continent; the median age is about 19. The other thing is that 50 years ago, when we were talking about investment in science and technology, we were talking about massive investment in infrastructure. But this has changed. When you look at a country like India that has made massive leaps forward, it no longer depends on heavy-capital investment in infrastructure, but on investment in the human brain. We have seen the progress that country has made in terms of information technology.

Ory Okolloh: I wholeheartedly agree with the importance and the need for technology, science, and innovation — for some of the same reasons, and particularly because Africa’s demographics are very young. But I don’t necessarily think it’s only that. As a continent, we are falling behind, yes, and I think we are missing the opportunity to come up with solutions for challenges, some of which are global — for instance, climate change — and some that are quite unique to our region. For instance, if you look at agriculture, there is still a lot of opportunity there to change the way we’ve traditionally done things. If you look at services, which could probably absorb many of the young people in the region, are we getting them to compete with the global companies like Uber and Facebook and so on? But even as we look at science and technology and how we are falling behind, the other big gap that I see and worry about is around industrialization. As much as innovation is important, I think we also need to just make stuff. If we look at Kenya, where I’m from, as an example, we are importing everything down to toothpicks. That worries me because if you can’t build things or manufacture them, you struggle to close gaps in education and in skills around technology, science, and even engineering. I do worry that this push for a “fourth industrialization” is primarily driven by tech, and I worry that it is suggesting there is an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog straight to digital. India is excelling in technology, yes, but they are also building. I think we need to remember that our region has quite an illustrious history of making and building. We need to regain that.

AGF: I think this all leads to a very important issue and that’s science diplomacy. Issues like climate change and agriculture are more global issues that need to be tackled through collaboration, be it through African and intra-African collaboration, or North and South, or South and South, or between some countries in Africa and India or Brazil. Though, unfortunately, if you go back in history after the removal of the Colonial period, we find that countries still look up to institutions in the North. There is not enough intra-African collaboration, so we need to see how best to promote it and have a science diplomacy framework that’s set up within the continent. We still have to work together to make sure we address our needs: Agriculture, water, and energy all are issues critical for the continent. We need now to find our own way to address our own agenda and to start investing in our own people. Until we get into this mindset, we will not even be staying put — we will be going backwards — and we can’t afford to do that.

* * *

OO: We talk about “African solutions for African problems,” but that is not necessarily at the exclusion of everything else. I don’t think it’s binary. If you look at my trajectory, I’ve recognized that there is both a need for solutions that are more relevant to us, but that there is also the need for global collaboration. I am always looking for how to bring the best that is out there — whether it’s in Kenya, whether it’s in the U.S. — to bear on this region. I think a lot of Africans in my generation, and especially those of us who have spent time overseas before coming back, are quite comfortable moving between the two worlds, though always with a lens of, “What can we do to help our countries or regions?” The Omidyar Network is trying to find the best entrepreneurs working on solutions that could have an impact in the region — and what better way to do it than to work with great local talent to help identify those entrepreneurs?

AGF: This issue of brain drain, though, will always be there, and has been there for major countries in Asia or South America. Africa, too, has lost many of her best brains. Why do people leave the continent? Salary is, I think, secondary. The main reason is that people do not have the best environment to work in — meaning proper labs and research facilities. Often, funding has been given to individual researchers, but focus increasingly is being put on the development of facilities, which are critical for researchers in the Global South to remain and continue their work. When looking at sponsoring a Ph.D. student, we are looking at retaining this brain, and we know we need to provide that person with the proper, enabling environment — perhaps even better than they could find in the West. This is what many Asian countries have done in terms of bringing back the best brains. Then we have to also find a way of addressing employability of these graduates — so that they are not going to just be employed, but they also become very good ambassadors for the program. Right now, the statistics are dire.

OO: For me, the appeal of returning home after studying abroad was always a sense that I would do my best work here, at home — home more broadly being the region, and also Kenya. I’m a lawyer, I’ve in tech, I’m been involved in investments; the fear was whether or not I would be able to maintain the fluidity that is a bit easier to maintain when you are overseas, and avoid being put into a box. But surprisingly it’s worked out. That being said, and as much as I speak to people who are on the fence on whether to come back or not, you realize over time that just because you are in the diaspora does not mean that you cannot have an impact back at home.

* * *

OO: The depiction of Africa has changed in the media in that it is not always poverty, disease, and so on. Of course you have the 10 years of the African “good story,” sort of at the other extreme. There were some bombastic stories: Africa’s rising and rising, and then economists were like, “Sorry, it’s over. Let’s go back to the doom and gloom.” I think that’s what’s frustrating. Yes, there are bad things happening on the continent, but there are also good things happening. It’s the nuance. If I was to go by what I see on CNN nowadays, I would think America was falling apart because of Trump. I’ve been like, “Oh, my God, America is finished. It’s over. It’s the end of American glory.” There would be all sorts of bombastic headlines if the current U.S. election were being covered the way an African election would be covered. So the media coverage of Africa has improved, but I do think the pendulums swinging toward the extremes are a bit frustrating. It’s the whole Africa is not a country problem. Some countries are struggling; others are back on the rise. There are pockets of opportunity. I would also say that local voices in media have definitely gotten better, and I think technology has had a lot to do with that — your ability to tell your story directly without going through intermediaries. The next generation of writers who are emerging or who have emerged, your Chimamanda Adichies, have powerful stories, op-eds, and portrayals of us. I think the owning of your spaces and not necessarily trying to impress or wanting acceptance is something I’ve observed that is very different in this generation coming up. Less of, “Hey, we want to join your club and be part of this.” It’s more like: “We’re here, and we have a right, and you take notice of us, and if not, that’s too bad because here we are.” I think there’s sort of an extra oomph with the younger people coming up. They’re writing. They’re communicating. They’re sharing, and they are very much technology driven. That ability to have your platform — whether it’s your blog, your Twitter, your Vine, your Instagram — it’s shifting the dynamics there and allowing people to tell their stories better and more effectively and, I think, much more unapologetically.

AGF: I totally agree, because I think we need to tell our own story. But having said that, there is another layer that we also have to put in this, which is that Africa must value African culture. Africa must value African tradition. Africa must value Africa, period. For example, one area that I have been able to witness closely is traditional medicine. If you look at the way India and China, for example, have addressed this is that they got government support to say, “OK, yes, we believe this is part of our heritage and our culture. We’ll go along with it.” What did you see last year? The Nobel Prize was awarded to China for having developed one product against malaria. Now, how many such plans do we have on the continent? How much value do we add to this? I think what we have to do now is use available technology to tell our own story and to value our past, our history, and our tradition. I think increasingly, and this may sound a bit bombastic, but we have to increasingly say, “We are African,” as opposed to saying, “We are from Botswana. We are from Nairobi.” We are African. We have a common culture. We have a common heritage, and this is us. This is where we come from, and this is something that has to be told to our kids, because they are still aping other cultures. They are still aping other values, and this is something that has to be taught effectively in our education system, and we need to be proud to be Africans.

* * *

AGF: I was very interested in sciences from a young age because I had motivated teachers who managed to actually infect me with the virus of science. When I finished my A-level high school, I visited the career officer and he looked at me and said, “Why do you want to study chemistry?” I said, “Well, I find it fascinating. Chemistry has all the answers to my questions. It may be a stupid question, but it can explain why the sky is blue, why the plant is green, so I want to study chemistry.” He said, “I would not advise you to study chemistry because, first of all, you are a girl, and the second thing is that when you come back, there will be no job for you because we don’t need scientists, especially women scientists.” I went home and my father asked how the meeting was. I told him but said, “I’m still going to do sciences.” I still did it because I was passionate. We have all these stereotypes that science is for boys. Last Women’s Day, for example, in Mauritius we asked young girls to name female innovators and female scientists who have made it in the world. Nobody could give a name. Nobody knew about Marie Curie; no one could tell who Rosalind Franklin was. If we are going to make quantum leaps in actually bringing girls on board to study science, we need to work on removing stereotypes.

OO: My own story, interestingly enough, started at home. My father had two daughters and lots of pressure from the family, both on him and my mom, to keep going until they had a son, but he was perfectly happy with two daughters. That’s one of the reasons that I haven’t changed my maiden name. My father was George Okolloh. He was quite adamant, and the phrase he used was, “What boys can do, girls can do better.” Now, as I’m a mother of three daughters, I’m just realizing how invaluable your home surrounding is. We still struggle with the invisibility of female accomplishments; it’s so stark. Even up until a few years ago, I would avoid women’s conferences and women’s panels. I would run away from them because I wanted to be recognized in my own right and not as a woman. Now, as I am getting wiser and older, I am starting to appreciate why such forums are important, why having visibility not just as an African in tech, but as an African woman in tech, is important. I’m sort of embracing my position as a role model in different ways because it is only by seeing how other people have done it that you can believe that you can do it.

This conversation has been condensed for publication. A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August issue of  FP magazine.

Photos: Courtesy of Ameenah Gurib-Fakim and courtesy of Ory Okolloh