It may not be easily noticed because the headquarters of African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has for over half a century been dominated by “pure politics.” This was worsened by a crop of leaders who could not see science as a major driving force behind goods and services needed to overcome dehumanizing levels of poverty and the widespread inability to avail basic human needs.
However, things have changed fast over the last three years and a visit to the AU headquarters easily show that days when the continent seemed to thrive on “imported modernity” or overwhelming dependency on imported goods and services may finally be ending.
Indeed the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) is steadily coming up with innovative ways of putting the vast continent on the path of sustainable development. From a symbolic perspective things have changed for Africa heads of state who derive pleasure from being summoned to attending “consultative development conferences” in various world capitals.
This time summits are being brought closer to home ground where they seem better placed to get “appropriate deals” from new and old economic powers. The illusion created is that the leaders who attend these summits go there to “bring development” for their people.
However, the increased emphasis on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) with a focus on industrialization injects much hope that may be in another two decades, African investors or industrialists will, for example, be fully able to manufacture soap, cloth, medicines, process and effectively package millions of tons of food that go waste in urban and rural markets apart from improving food production.
The list of sustainable development needs in Africa is unlimited. However, efforts from AU headquarters mark a change of direction, especially activities of the Committee on Development Information, Science and Technology (CODIST) and NEPAD which is now AU’s technical agency.
Apart from calling for actions towards Africa’s industrialization, CODIST and NEPAD are systematically or increasingly pushing for practical actions at individual, institutional, community, national and other levels that lead to products and services that African people need to survive and alleviate poverty sustainably.
The continent needs to overcome: malnutrition, famine, minimal clothing, diseases, poor sanitation, unsafe drinking water, poor housing, inadequate transport and communication and others especially minimal local, national and regional trade. The latter tend to be distribution channels for imported products and services because few nations- except for South Africa and increasingly Egypt- have sustainable home grown industries.
During the first week of May, 2011, ECA held the Second Session of Committee on Development Information, Science and Technology (CODIST II). The theme of the conference was “ Innovation for Africa’s Industrial Development.”
The conference included the launching of the much needed African Inter-Parliamentary Forum on Science Technology and Innovation and the Engineering Expertise to Improve Health Outcomes in Africa. However, it dealt with nearly all aspects of STI in Africa.
A survey of meetings that are being held at AU headquarters indicate that science is at the core although political events tend to get extra-highlights. Participants included parliamentarians, industrialists, policy makers, legal experts, ICT experts, geospatial or remote sensing experts, media, deans of medical and engineering schools, representatives of regional and international organisations, scientists from universities and research institutes.
In short, there is a new wave of increased demand for homegrown industrialization and innovation. CODIST and NEPAD are well placed to
help usher Africa into a new era.
By Otula Owuor
Editor, Science Africa Nairobi