Why Future African Scientists Need A More Sustainable Career Path

Investment and development of human skills is a vital impetus for economic growth, as well as a key driving force behind competitiveness and poverty reduction.

There is no better way to do that than to educate young graduates with expertise in high-demand areas to help grow African economies, create jobs, and support research.

Professor Christian Happi, the current Dean of the College of Postgraduate Studies and Director of the Africa Center for Infectious Genomics Disease (ACEGID), was recently in Washington to talk about the relevance and importance of quality higher education for Africa.

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A native of Cameroon, Professor Happi is the recipient of numerous national and international awards honouring his extensive contributions and capacity building in applying genomics and biotechnology knowledge to solve major infectious diseases in West Africa, particularly Ebola, Malaria, Lassa fever, HIV and human genomics.

Recalling the Ebola outbreak in 2014, he said:

we were able to avoid it because of two factors: we were lucky and we were prepared. We were able to trace the outbreak, make the data available in real time and for free to the international community.

In fact, Professor Happi and his team worked with the Nigerian government and other partners for a rapid (15 minutes) and accurate diagnosis of epidemic. The diagnosis used was approved by the World Health Organization and the United States Food and Drugs Administration.

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The spread of Ebola in Nigeria was quickly contained using the same technology that young Africans researchers are being taught. “Our young experts have access to the technology to solve problems, in their own familiar environment. We are generating knowledge and transmitting it so that others can have access to it and allow people to understand how a disease is transmitted,” he said.

Innovations need incubation

The Africa Centers of Excellence (ACE), an innovative results-based regional higher education project funded through the World Bank’s IDA, the fund for poorest countries, is aiming to improve the quality of education in the region. The project seeks to increase capacity within science, technology, engineering, and maths (‘STEM’ for short), as well as agricultural and health sciences at the post-graduate level students. Through the project, over 2400 regional students have enrolled in short-term courses, Masters, and PhD programs in 19 centers of excellence, in seven countries.

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One of its leading centres is the ACEGID at the Redeemers’ University in Nigeria. The centre is well known for being the first research facility that provided rapid response and testing when the Ebola virus hit Nigeria in 2014.

The centre is building the capacity of the next generation of scientists on how to use genomics knowledge and tools to eliminate infectious diseases. Recently, it has been developing a rapid on-site testing methods for Lassa fever, through the use of mobile phone technology.

Training and knowledge sharing

To ensure that the knowledge received is shared across the continent, ACEGID has also created a Foundational Genomics and Molecular Biology training. It is a training of trainers. The topics covered include: pedagogy, diagnostic techniques, genetics theory, and communications. At the end of each course, students create educational videos of what they have learned to share it with others online and for free.

This initiative is making major impact on health and education. We are also creating a reverse brain-drain because our students can achieve their aspirations without leaving the continent,” he said, with a large smile.

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The best African universities are quickly turning into regional research hubs, becoming globally competitive, and fostering locally relevant research.

The ACEGID example also shows that, under the right circumstances and with the right people, it is possible to establish centers in Africa that can take on applied research and education teaching while solving pressing development challenges.

As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela once said: “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Adapted from World Bank Blogs