On Thursday 20th July, the Planet Earth Institute (PEI) was delighted to welcome over 250 people for the 2017 #ScienceAfrica UnConference. The exciting day saw guests from a diverse range of backgrounds come together to celebrate ‘Big Ideas for Africa’. The UnConference also highlighted the individuals, research groups, academic institutions and commercial organisations making great scientific and technological advancements on the continent.
Our Chairman and Trustee, the Rt Hon Lord Paul Boateng, opened the day with a warm welcome to our guests. In his speech, Lord Boateng stressed that Africa is a diverse continent experiencing rapid and dynamic growth, and emphasised the world-class contributions it has made, and can continue to make, to global science, technology and innovation.
Following Lord Boateng’s welcome, our Operations Director, Nick Staite, introduced the PEI exChange, the first online matching platform for all those committed to African development. Based on user-identified criteria (including countries and regions of focus, industries and sectors of interest, skills and experiences), the PEI exChange algorithm provides personalised matches to help turn ‘Big Ideas for Africa’ into reality. With easy online chat features and dedicated projects pages on the ‘Big Ideas Map, the PEI exChange will revolutionise the way people connect, do good and do business in Africa.
Our fantastic facilitator, Alison Coward, then took to the stage and asked our attendees to consider what the future holds for science and tech in Africa. Our guests were also invited to think about their own ‘Big Ideas for Africa’, the skills and experiences they could offer and the people they needed to connect with to turn their big ideas into big change for Africa. This was a key sub-theme throughout the day, with attendees – whether from business, academia, government or civil society – encouraged to think about how they can personally contribute to African development. At the PEI #ScienceAfrica UnConference, we want to make activists of our attendees, and they did not disappoint. Everyone had an idea – some complex, others simple, and some pan-African, whilst some focused on a single village. What’s more, everyone wanted to connect, exchange ideas and drive change for Africa.
From there, Lord Boateng introduced our morning panel, which was tasked with exploring Big Ideas for Africa. This year we were delighted to welcome the Hon. Min. Blade Nzimande, the South African Minister for Higher Education and Training, Maya Kulycky, Project Director for Business Development and Strategy at IBM Research-Africa, Prof Kelly Chibale, Professor and Principal Investigator at the University of Cape Town, and Simon Kay, Head of International Operations for the Wellcome Trust.
The Hon. Min. Blade Nzumande opened the morning panel with a consideration of the great scientific and technological innovations emerging from Africa. He also stressed that the purpose of science and technology is to improve society. Our next speaker, Maya Kulycky, discussed how IBM Research-Africa is tackling the continent’s grand development challenges. She also highlighted the organisation’s impactful research to implement data-driven healthcare, their work helping local governments improve business processes, as well as collaborations with the Square Kilometer Array, one the world’s largest radio telescope. Professor Kelly Chibale then discussed the work of H3D, the continent’s first integrated drug discovery and development centre. He explained the organisation’s efforts to deliver sustainable pharmaceutical research in Africa, stressing the need to invest in training students and creating world-class scientific infrastructure. Finally, Simon Kay discussed the Coalition for African Research and Innovation (CARI), led by the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) in partnership with Wellcome Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Simon also outlined CARI’s mission of building a highly coordinated, well-funded, and African-led African innovation enterprise.
After a short break, our guests participated in nine different simultaneous interactive workshops. The workshops were led by organisations including Global Challenges Research Fund, INASP, the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), GSMA, and Amref Health Africa. Our workshop leaders did a fantastic job of delivering highly participative and stimulating sessions on a wide variety of issues. These ranged from integrating gender thinking into innovation processes, the navigations between research and policy, and the development of utility scale solar electricity. Walking around the venue, it was inspiring to see attendees discuss and debate ideas, share different perspectives and drive to solutions.
During the lunch break, attendees were able to explore the PEI Partners Fair, with some fantastic organisations exhibiting. These included IBM, the University of Exeter, GSMA, British Council, RAENG and the Global Challenge Research Fund.
After lunch, Alison kicked off the afternoon session by inviting our guests to think about what was needed to make their ‘Big Ideas For Africa’ a reality and specifically the type of people they needed to connect with. Following this, Lord Boateng introduced our second panel of high-level speakers, which focused on celebrating and exploring innovation from Africa. Panellists included Hon. Min. Ibrahim Mohammed Awal, Ghana’s Minister for Business Development, Dr Sipho Moyo, Director of Special Projects for the African Development Bank (AfDB), Professor Maggy Momba, Research Professor for the Tshwane University of Technology, Noah Samara, Chairman of Yazmi, and Dr Joe DeVries, VP of Programme Development and Innovation for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
First, Hon. Min. Ibrahim Mohammed Awal, discussed his government’s efforts to make Ghana the most business-friendly nation in the world through investment in skills. He also outlined some major developments that can benefit not only Ghana, but also the whole continent. This included the successful launch of Ghana’s first satellite. Dr Joe DeVries then discussed the role of technologies and markets as catalysts in Africa’s agricultural transformation. He also stressed the importance of developing smallholder farming in Africa as a business. Our third afternoon panellist, Prof Maggy Momba, explored how nanotechnology can be harnessed to tackle water purification and quality issues, a challenge still impacting the daily lives of millions of people on the continent. Following this, in a wonderfully impassioned presentation, Noah Samara argued for the implementation of high-quality science education, as he stressed that ‘studying science builds minds and reasoning skills for all professions’. His company, Yazmi, is currently helping to improve access and opportunity to high-quality educational material, delivered via their satellite network. Last but by no means least, Dr Sipho Moyo, discussed the African Development Bank’s support for local scientific and technological innovation, including its commendable investments in higher education.
From there, our attendees plunged into the second round of interactive workshops. This time, topics ranged from African growth in space science research, to mental health on the continent and how pastoralists are managing the threats of a changing climate. Thanks again to our supporters from organisations including The Cambridge-Africa Programme, WaterAid, iheed and the BBC
To round off the afternoon, PEI trustee, Sir Christopher Edwards, offered his thoughts on the day. He noted that the PEI’s #ScienceAfrica UnConference aimed to challenge the dominant rhetoric around Africa and promoted an impressive range of science and tech innovation. Sir Christopher also stressed the importance of bringing together such a diverse group of people, all passionate about celebrating the wealth of successes coming from the continent and committed to supporting future African innovation.
Thank you to all those who attended our 2017 #ScienceAfrica UnConference and made the day such a success! Thanks, especially, to our Partners, including Banco Valor, for who are helping us build a movement for science in Africa.