Building nation’s scientific capacity requires more youths in STEM disciplines – AIMS chief

Rwanda is set to become home to Quantum Leap Africa (QLA), the first research centre in quantum sciences in Africa, aimed at promoting data sciences on the continent. The centre is part of a broader plan to establish African Institute for Mathematical Sciences - Next Einstein Initiative (AIMS-NEI) global headquarters in Rwanda.
Zomahou speaks during a past event. / Internet photo
Zomahou speaks during a past event. / Internet photo

Rwanda is set to become home to Quantum Leap Africa (QLA), the first research centre in quantum sciences in Africa, aimed at promoting data sciences on the continent.

The centre is part of a broader plan to establish African Institute for Mathematical Sciences - Next Einstein Initiative (AIMS-NEI) global headquarters in Rwanda.

Thierry Zomahoun, the President and CEO of AIMS spoke to The New Times’ Julius Bizimungu about the establishment of QLA, the future of data science in Africa, and how the continent can lead the quantum revolution.


You established the global AIMS headquarters here in Rwanda and part of it was to have the Quantum Leap Africa Research Centre. This looks like a dream come true, but how is it relevant to the current development efforts?

It’s absolutely a dream come true. I would like to say the Quantum Leap Africa Research Centre is a key component of a whole knowledge ecosystem that AIMS is trying to establish in Africa.

This ecosystem includes an integrated strategy for accelerating the transformation of Africa, some of which is to harness scientific and technical training of young African talents at masters and PhD level in mathematical sciences and applications.

Building any nation’s scientific capacity doesn’t happen by a snap of a finger. It happens through lifelong learning and increasing the presence of young men and women in STEM disciplines.

With the establishment of QLA, we want Africa to catch up and lead the third technological revolution because we have missed many digital revolutions, despite some countries’ efforts.

We haven’t been able to do this because of a number of factors, including the colonialisation and globalisations which somehow turn Africa into a continent of consumers. Then, we face lack of investment in research and development, research infrastructure as well as science and technological education across the continent. This is the time we are realising that we want to lead the third information technology revolution.

Why do you think this is the right time, and how realistic is this?

Africa has the best environment for new research explorations, for new high end research that will help the continent to address some of the biggest challenges.

On the other hand, we are seeing the future in the young people. While other regions are aging, Africa is still young and it is projected that by 2050, 40 per cent of the world will be in Africa. These are the people who are talented, smart and hungry for knowledge. We want to harness the power of youth to lead the quantum revolution.

Finally, we have the involvement of the policy makers. Rwanda is an example because the leadership of this country has embraced the idea that now is the time for Africa to create its own centre in quantum technologies.

Let’s talk about big data analytics, from your experience, what’s the future of data science in Africa?

The centre seeks to address development problems through data analytics and smart systems design, and build capacity in emerging fields such as quantum information science. We want it to be a world-class centre of scientific research excellence at the leading edge of information science and technology.

The truth is that data is going to be the most valuable commodity in 21st century. Countries will go to war because of data and nations will take a competitive edge on other nations because of their capacity of handling data.

The recent hacking cases where countries have been threatening others’ industry data tell us a lot. It is up to us (Africa) to generate enough capacity for our people to change the African narrative. There’s no way we can tell our own story without being the master of our data, and this cannot happen if the data is still collected and analysed in the western world.

When you are not in control of your data infrastructure, your story is in the hands of other people who actually have authority to manipulate it or even narrate the story as it fits them. This is why data science is so important. It is critical to Africa’s development because it will help policy makers make accurate and targeted decisions, the decisions that will help the nations to thrive.

We have a lot of things that require data capability. Things like natural resources, complex green and health challenges to tackle. All these require experts in data sciences, and we are optimistic data science will revolutionalise our economies.

Why are you so hopeful that it will revolutionalise African economies given that we continue churning out scientists but we don’t see the right productivity for the global market?

I think there are many scientists in Africa doing great stuff but the spotlight is not on them. When the international media come here, they don’t want to see the discoveries and the inventions, rather they want to focus on how corrupt African countries are, how badly nations are governed. This is what makes news.

Our people lack exposure, and it’s, therefore, up to us to showcase Africa’s breakthroughs and advancements. See, there’s a young Cameroonian research scientist who recently discovered a solution for ‘original antigenic sin’, a problem that has been there for roughly a century. There’s another one working on a much anticipated solution which is expected to bring down the cost of HIV treatment and public health in Africa.

Things are happening but we are not telling the story of these young scientists doing great things.

These are the solutions that will significantly contribute to building African development.

Africa is still lagging behind in many ways, yet more investments are being made to promote science. How will African countries build the next generation of scientists?

Of course we cannot pretend that we’ve done much, but let’s get the record straight, it’s unbelievable that when people are talking about mathematical technology, they seem to sideline Africa’s greatest role in scientific endeavours. Africa is the birth place of mathematical sciences. The Greeks came in Africa to learn maths.

We have to understand that the colonial era crippled Africa’s journey towards scientific and technological excellence. The colonial masters didn’t want Africans to learn anything about science and technology. And before the colonial era, there had been slavery.

Africa has suffered some of the worst human tragedies in history. We are still suffering the consequences of these tragedies, and Africa cannot rise in an overnight. No nation has been able to transform literally and become a global player in sixty years, the period that the oldest African nation has spent after colonialism.

However, for the past decade there’s been an upward positive trend. Africa’s research output has tripled in ten years. Countries like Rwanda, Senegal, and Kenya are bold in terms of technological endeavours and breakthroughs, and innovations. But we cannot expect to catch up on our delay in just a decade.

What we ought to do is to continue to invest for the next decades to come; in capacity building, research development, and other science sectors.

Rwanda has had a national science, technology and innovation policy since 2005 and since then the country has been blessed to host a number of technology and science centres including the AIMS-NEI and East African Science and Technology Commission, among others. Now we are having the Quantum Leap Africa Research Centre being established in the country. How do you think all this supports the country to achieve its science and technology goals?

Rwanda is coming up very strongly and this is because it’s one of the first countries that have put in place deliberate strategies toward science and technology at a time when some leaders else where are not convinced to make science, innovation and technology a priority.

I think all this adds value not just to the technology and science sectors, but to the entire development sectors.

Infrastructure is one of the biggest issues limiting countries to pursue the big data analytics revolution, but it’s clear that over the years the infrastructure to allow people to access digital information has surpassed what anyone could have imagined. Does infrastructure still remain the biggest barrier to achieving this revolution?

Absolutely! The reality is that the level of infrastructure that the majority of Africans have is nonexistent. We need infrastructure because we’re still consumers. Today, if we collect data, we’ll have to take it to London, Washington, Pen State or somewhere else to analyse it and there’s a cost that comes with all this.


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