By Catherine de Lange
Africa must take its place on the global science stage, says Thierry Zomahoun, president of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences
You say Africa has a PR problem. Why is maths the answer?
If we want Africa to be respected as a global player, it has to show that it doesn’t need charity to handle its own problems. To be able to do that we need science, and in particular mathematical sciences, which are the backbone of every modern society. Plus, maths is free to share, it’s not culturally bound, and it doesn’t require heavy infrastructure. You just need paper and a pencil and you are good to go.
How was your own education?
I’ve been educated in Benin, Switzerland and Canada. My life started out tough, though. Nothing in my childhood predicted that I would be sitting here giving you this interview. I wasn’t even supposed to go to school: I was an abandoned kid in Benin. My grandmother took me in, managed to get a small business running and was able to save money and enrol me at the local primary school. The first day she took me to school she said: “Son, I want you to know something. I’m not free because I can’t read, I can’t write my name. Education will set you free.” Her words are still resonating in me.
How are you improving education?
We launched our first African Institute for Mathematical Sciences centre of excellence in Cape Town in 2003. We now have five centres and we aim to grow to 15 by 2025. Our faculty are volunteers from 40 countries around the globe. At each AIMS centre we offer a mix of programmes: advanced postgraduate training, research and outreach.
What happens if young people aren’t given these opportunities?
Do you realise that in 2050, 40 per cent of the world’s youth will be African. If the energy of this youth is not harnessed positively, it will be a disaster for Africa and also for the entire world.
How do you select students for your centres?
The number one criterion is academic excellence. We also look for a passion for Africa – we want people to give back, and come back here even if they go off to universities elsewhere. And crucially we look for leadership potential. We want to train a new generation of leaders who are capable of critical thinking; a generation of leaders who can challenge the status quo.
What’s next in your ongoing campaign to promote African science?
We are organising the Next Einstein Forum – the first global forum for science to be held in Africa. It is crucial for us, firstly because there are not many young African scientists who are able to get a visa to travel to Europe or the US for big meetings. It doesn’t matter how smart they are, they get turned down.
Secondly, when the media reports on Africa, the positive side is overlooked. They focus instead on Ebola or Boko Haram. So we want to put a spotlight on these young people, at least for a couple of days.
(Thierry Zomahoun is president and CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. He leads the Next Einstein Initiative, which aims to create a premier scientific network across the continent).