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There’s a simple formula at the heart of development in Africa, although up until now policymakers haven’t quite figured out the balance of the equation. They’re very much focused on the outcome — specified goals defining success — without paying heed to the principles necessary to bring it about. If Africa is to achieve the wellbeing gains associated with the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), policies and investment need to strengthen the base upon which development is built. 

The formula looks like this: structural transformation is required to enable individuals to be productive. For African countries to be in the position to provide the means for transformation, increase productivity and enhance the wellbeing of households, it’s important that there are more innovative ways of producing goods and services. The necessary innovation will only come from solid research. 

Trailblazing entrepreneurs with pioneering new technologies are the popular faces of innovation. They reinvent the ways things are done, and wealth is generated off the back of their hard graft. But in reality there’s an important layer beneath them enabling their success. Innovation is only possible if the ecosystem of knowledge generation is deep and wide, something that needs to be underpinned by robust academic research. 

Without that solid foundation development in Africa would be impossible; achieving the UN’s SDGs would be impossible. This means economies on the continent will only rise if meaningful support for the research that underpins it all is provided. And there’s an important qualifier in this regard. These foundations need to be built in Africa.  

Digging research foundations on African soil 

There’s a myth that has plagued African policy-making circles for years: development research on the continent doesn’t need to be done on the continent. The idea behind the myth is that African countries can simply import the knowledge they need to generate productivity and grow their economies. This just isn’t true.  

Substantial evidence suggests research needs to be contextualised to be effective, and it’s impossible to properly contextualise knowledge and understanding from faraway places. We may live in a digital world, but geography still matters. Scientists, sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists and economists need to grapple with the characteristic challenges of the African continent on the African continent, to be able to generate solutions that work for the continent. 

A building analogy may explain why: there are six main soil types: clay, sandy, silty, peaty, chalky and loamy. Any good builder knows you need to take a different approach when building on each one. Get it wrong and the walls will collapse at the first sign of heavy rain. Development is no different. Research needs to reflect a thorough understanding of the local context to dig solid foundations, adapted to the unique conditions — people, culture, economies, attitudes, environment, institutions — across the different regions of the continent. Ignore this fact, and development will lack resilience. Structures will crumble at the first crisis. 

Up until now governments have failed to take this seriously. The consequence: a large gap — both in terms of financial support and the scope of human resources between what is required to meet the development goals and current capacity. While this gap can’t be filled overnight, the divide can be bridged with a lintel beam in the short term by facilitating strategic research partnerships. This will allow for greater inclusivity, relevance, and rigour in the quality of research, supporting the development load built on top. 

Practical steps to build research partnerships on the continent 

There are three practical steps that will accelerate meaningful research partnerships across the continent. The first is to enable greater mobility of people between research institutions, including both academic staff, researchers, and graduate and undergraduate students. This will facilitate knowledge sharing throughout the continent, and leverage resources across different disciplines — a key requirement to find novel solutions to the challenges of development in Africa. To achieve this, we need to push for greater harmonisation. 

Cultural approaches to higher education vary considerably across the different regions. If we are to increase mobility we need to streamline the requirements for graduate work, as well as the requirements for teaching. It’s not as easy as it should be for a graduate researcher from Ghana to go and study and teach in Ethiopia, and vice versa. There needs to be a more unified system, codifying common standards across institutions to enable a free flow of people and ideas. 

Second, we need to create more opportunities for regional and interdisciplinary collaboration that is specifically geared towards understanding and addressing African challenges. A good example of this is the upcoming International Summit on SDGs in Africa, where researchers will engage with each other as well as policymakers and the private sector to further develop their work and attract sufficient interest and exposure for that work to translate into meaningful development in Africa.  

Finally, researchers and academics need to be more cognisant of the fact that they don’t live in a va

cuum. They need to ensure their work is more relevant and focused on what matters most for Africa; as well as put as much emphasis on the uptake of their research as they do in its production. Moreover, they need to play a bigger role in how their research is disseminated, and the various ways in which they can build connections with policymakers and the private sector. Policymakers as well as the private sector will be the beneficiaries of robust research — the foundations of development — and thus researchers need to see how to get them more involved in what they are doing. 

The scope of the challenge of development in Africa is not simple, but the formula to find the necessary solutions certainly is. The only way to build strong and sustainable development on the continent, is to buttress the foundations of robust research underpinning it all. 

• Prof Aryeetey is secretary-general of the African Research Universities Alliance.

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