Raissa Malu

To fuel the African debate

Three of the designers and presenters of the Learn at Home vignettes

Africa needs women scientists.

I was recently listening to the Débat africain broadcast hosted by journalist Alain Foka on RFI. The edition was about the place of African women in science with four brilliant African women scientists.

There was Mrs Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a chemist and former president of the Republic of Mauritius. She is a scientist I admire. I recommend her 2014 TED Talk, "Humble Plants with Surprising Virtues", which has been seen over 1 million times!

Young talent

With her, we had Valérie Gbonon, an Ivorian researcher on bacterial resistance to antibiotics and member of the For Women In Science 2020 jury of the L'Oréal Foundation and UNESCO  Younoussa Haifaou, a doctoral student in genetics at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar and winner of the For Women In Science 2020 Young Talents Award  ; and last but not least, Nadège Taty from the Democratic Republic of Congo, PhD student in Science (Ecology and Health) and winner of the Young Talents For Women In Science 2020 Award too (no need to tell you how proud we are of her).

Several points were made in this debate and I would like to contribute some elements here to fuel it.

School Textbooks

The first question that was addressed was why there were so few women in science. Participants rightly pointed to sociocultural burdens, stereotypes, self-censorship, and the lack of or few champions, and, I might add, women champions to push girls and women into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) studies and careers. They also mentioned the absence of African women in textbooks and I would like to focus on this point.

Women are indeed the great absentees of science history books, not because they have not contributed, quite the contrary, but because they have been systematically sidelined, ignored and robbed of the results of their research. They could not make the famous Marie Curie suffer this sad fate, but they were not kind to her either!

Contributions from Africa

But the history of science has also forgotten and despoiled the contributions of Africa. In this context, you can imagine when one is a woman and is African, one carries a double burden. But fortunately, actions and measures are being taken to change the situation.

Let's take the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo. For about 10 years, a holistic reform of the education system has been underway. Educational programs in science and mathematics in particular are being modernized in order to have programs that are certainly aligned with international standards, but inscribed in contextual realities.

Please note that this reform is not only about the education system, but also about the educational system itself.

Local People

Thus, the Ministry teams in charge of modernizing these programs are aware of the need to feature local characters, men and women, girls and boys, active in skill development situations as often as possible.

Recently, with the closure of schools as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we launched the Learn at Home program to allow learning to continue at a distance. It consists of video and audio vignettes that address key concepts in a fun and original way for students, parents and teachers.

YouTube Scientists

To date, 143 videos and 1 podcast have been prepared by 19 Congolese teachers, students and entrepreneurs, including 11 women! This is a voluntary process. We were keen to have Congolese science youtubers, including a majority of women, in order to break stereotypes, demystify these scientific subjects and make them accessible to everyone, girls and boys. And it works!

Students and teachers appreciate our vignettes and ask us to produce them in all the national languages of the DRC (the vignettes are in French and some are bilingual French-Lingala). What they appreciate is that these contents are presented to them by people and in a language that they are familiar with. This is how we prepare future generations of African scientists who will have evolved on this issue in this way.

Lack of funding

The discussion continued by addressing the problem of the lack of ecosystems to enable the development of scientific research in Africa. The participants recalled, hammered home the importance of funding research, protecting research results, and promoting and valorizing research in Africa.

On this point, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is not the best student. We are far from setting aside 1% of our GDP for research and innovation. The research budget (just like the education budget) essentially finances salaries.

Interesting initiatives

There is very little or no investment. This is extremely damaging and should be our priority. We need to increase the budget for research and education, and direct it towards investment.

That said, there are interesting public and private initiatives. Without being exhaustive, we have the Science and Technology Week organized in the DRC since 2014 with the Ministries in charge of education and scientific research, where research centers, higher education and university institutes, and independent researchers, come to present their work and research results to the thousands of visitors, pupils, teachers, students, parents, who survey the Science Village every year. The aim here is to promote Congolese and African knowledge and know-how in technical and scientific fields, and to arouse vocation.

Networks and magazines

We have the Sultani Makutano organized annually since 2015 by the Congolese business network of the same name, which brings together actors from the Congolese and African private and public sectors to reflect on new partnerships to support the development of industries. In addition, Sultani Makutano and my association, Investing In People ASBL, launched in 2019 Scholarships for Women in Science in the DRC. Fifteen Congolese scientists benefited from these scholarships in 2020 in the 3 categories, research fund, study scholarship (Bachelor, Master and Doctorate) and scholarship for participation in an international scientific meeting.

We also have magazines like RDC Logos initiated by Dr. Serge Mbay who signed a partnership with the Ministry of Scientific Research and Innovation to promote the results of Congolese research.

Next Einstein Forum

At the continental level, we should not lose sight of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) initiative, which is building a community of African scientists composed of Ambassadors, one per country, who are champions of science in their respective countries, and Fellows, who are African men and women scientists who are recognized in their field.

The NEF also launched a science journal in 2018, Scientific African Magazine, which documents scientific and technological developments in Africa and by Africans. The journal also addresses Africa's investments in science and technology.

Tailored Solutions

It is clear that a more systematic, inclusive approach and strong investment by governments is needed, but the work done in recent years is moving in the right direction.

Yes, "Africa must develop its own solutions adapted to its environment, find appropriate responses and support its researchers", and as Ameenah Gurib-Fakim reminded us, governments must play the role. Why?

Basic and applied research

In research, there is basic research and applied research. As was said during the debate, research is prevention, it is anticipation. We research to develop applications for the benefit of populations.

But we also research to accumulate knowledge without any other objective. This is where the revolution has yet to take place in Africa!

The role of governments

The role of governments is to ensure that basic research is done in the best possible conditions in Africa, as well as applied research that is developed in dialogue with the private sector and partners.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim said during the debate: "a soccer team cannot win a match with 52% of its team on the sidelines". For Africa, it is collective suicide to continue to keep its girls and women out of the technical and scientific fields.

For Agenda 2063

Africa needs battalions of female mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, and engineers if it is to achieve its Agenda 2063, The Africa We Want. It needs scientists, male and female, at all levels up to the highest levels of decision-making.

So, dear Africans, dear African women, I ask us the question that is the motto of Sultani Makutano, "If we don't, who will?"

Science is fun, join us! 😉

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