Opinion: World Needs 1M New African Ph.D. Researchers To Help Solve Global Challenges

By Dana Sanchez Published: February 22, 2017, 1:02 pm
African Ph.D. researchersTaskeen Adam and Richmond Juvenile Ehwi are part of a Cambridge University Ph.D. program to help train world-class researchers for Africa. Photo: Nick Saffell/cam.ac.uk

It’s not just Africa that needs research and researchers for its own use. The world needs African researchers — 1 million of them in the next 10 years — and a leading U.K. university hopes to help bridge the gap.

“We can’t have a situation where 14 percent of the world’s population – living on a continent with unique culture, diversity and environment – contributes less than 1 percent of published research output. The world needs the unique knowledge and perspective that African researchers can provide to solve our shared global challenges,” says David Dunne, director of the Cambridge-Africa Programme.

The University of Cambridge is building collaborative links with Africa, with its researchers helping to mentor young African researchers in their African universities and research institutions. This contributes to research capacity building in Africa and benefits Cambridge by widening the experience and opportunities for its researchers and students, the university said in a prepared statement.

From University of Cambridge.

Taskeen Adam and Richmond Juvenile Ehwi are part of a University of Cambridge Ph.D. program that’s enrolling five African students per year for five years, to help train world-class researchers for Africa.

“Africa needs a million new Ph.D. researchers over the next decade,” says David Dunne, director of the Cambridge-Africa Programme. It’s a huge figure. Dunne uses it to explain the scale of need in Africa for a new generation of scholars who will pioneer sustainable solutions to many of the continent’s challenges.

“There are world-class academics in Africa,” he explains, “but not enough to train and mentor all the young researchers that Africa needs to maintain and accelerate its progress. This is where Cambridge and other leading international universities can help, by making expertise and facilities available to help bridge this mentorship gap.”

Dunne is Director of the Cambridge-Africa Programme, a University initiative that for the past eight years has been building collaborative links between Cambridge and Africa. The model is centerd on Cambridge researchers helping to mentor young African researchers in their African universities and research institutions. This contributes to research capacity building in Africa but also benefits Cambridge by widening the experience and opportunities for its researchers and students.

A new Cambridge-Africa Ph.D. studentship scheme began to enroll Ph.D. students last year from all over Africa – five per year, every year for five years. “It’s at least a beginning,” says Dunne. “We want this program to grow in Cambridge, and other universities.”

Prospective student must be studying issues that are priorities for Africa, from urban growth to poverty, business associations to sustainable industries, and infectious disease to post-conflict citizenship.

Taskeen Adam is one of the Ph.D. students. She worked as an electrical engineer for two years when she decided that she wanted to use her skills to bring about social change. “What attracted me to engineering was the challenge of solving technical problems. But my real passion is for humanitarian issues and the need to create quality education for all,” she said.

In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly declared access to the internet as a basic human right. But 2014 data from Taskeen’s home country of South Africa showed that more than 4,000 schools had no access to electricity and 77 percent of schools had no computers. Thousands of children were missing out on the chance to learn the skills needed to make a better life.

Her research is enabling her to look at the educational opportunities afforded by the internet, in particular the potential of decolonised African MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) as a means for delivering inclusive educational programmes to the most marginalised learners in South Africa. She’s keen to develop an online educational framework adapted for, and relevant to, communities in developing countries.

Taskeen completed her first degree at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. On graduating, and while working full time, she pioneered an initiative called Solar Powered Learning to give students in rural areas access to technology that was low cost and environmentally friendly.

The pilot project won Taskeen accolades. She was listed among South Africa’s Mail & Guardian’s top 200 Young South Africans for 2014. This gave her the confidence to embark on a career that would use her engineering skills in ways that could help to bridge inequalities.

As part of her master’s research, she spent two weeks in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, where she visited schools benefiting from a national scheme to equip every child with a laptop. It was clear that this commendable program was failing to enhance learning. Although resources were being provided, there was a lack of focus on maintenance skills, curriculum integration and teacher professional development. In many cases, the children were more comfortable using the laptops than their teachers.

“My trip demonstrated the mismatch between the deliverables and the outcomes of the scheme. The focus was on technology deployment, rather than on improving educational attainment,” she says. “Many African governments seem to be following a similar path, and I hope that by using the resources, networks and expertise here in Cambridge, I might eventually be able to influence policy changes at the intersection of education and technology back in Africa.”

Richmond Juvenile Ehwi also hopes to take his skills and expertise back to his home country, Ghana. He has just arrived in Cambridge to start his Ph.D. in Cambridge’s Department of Land Economy. After his first degree at Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, he worked as a research consultant and estate manager.

Moving to Ghana’s capital city, he became interested in the changes he saw in the property market. “Plush Western-designed detached houses, apartments and gated communities are springing up and I wondered what the future would be like for Ghana’s urban landscape. While this development mirrors Accra’s integration into the globalised city concept, accompanying this trend are social, economic, environmental and cultural costs.”

As Western lifestyles become increasingly popular, the older-style family compounds associated with traditional Ghanaian culture are declining, even in rural areas. “With literacy rates and standards of living rising, households are demanding greater privacy and better sanitation which, in most traditional compound houses, are greatly compromised,” he explains.

In the West, gated communities are often seen in a negative light: they are associated with segregation, racial polarisation and social exclusion. While accepting the realities of this criticism, Richmond seeks to facilitate a balanced discussion and inspire evidence-based planning policies.

He suggests that, as new gated residences develop in the suburbs, there can be both material and social benefits for surrounding areas. “In Ghana, the new gated communities tend to be multiracial rather than segregated according to race or nationality. The ability to pay for your house is what counts, not what you do or what your ethnicity is. Gated developments offer the security and services that most people aspire to,” he says.

Entire neighbourhoods can benefit from the expectations of the owners of the new properties, he explains: “It’s misleading to think of gated communities as isolated enclaves. People who live in them are not completely cut off from society. They travel to work, to malls and markets, to church services. These public spaces facilitate social interaction. Also, better-off households offer employment for gardeners, drivers and care givers – and help to raise incomes and opportunities.”

His long-term plan is to create an urban study research Center back in Accra, and to take back a deeper understanding of the interplay of economic factors with social and cultural issues in urban development.

Dunne points to such plans as an indicator of the promise of the Cambridge-Africa Ph.D. studentship scheme. “We are training 25 Cambridge-Africa scholars,” he said. “It’s a small number compared with the overall need. But these researchers are a starting point. They will train other researchers and the expertise will multiply back in Africa.”

The Cambridge-Africa Ph.D. studentship scheme is funded by the University and the Cambridge Trust.

Read more at University of Cambridge.

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