The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced our need to work together to solve global problems, said Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng during the series of challenging conversations she is hosting: Unleashing the New Global University.

Africa has a history of being exploited by Western scientists, with helicopter research frequently downplaying the input and expertise of African scientists. However, turning our backs on global partners is not the solution, says UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

“If Africa chose to turn inwards, it would lose opportunities to promote African knowledge creation and innovation, create jobs, and develop our economies,” she said during the second #NewGlobalUni event held on 13 July entitled ‘International collaborations: how can we shift the power towards Africa?’

The COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced our need to work together to solve global problems, according to Phakeng.

“Our international partners are more important to us than ever before,” she said. “But we are no longer asking how African scientists can participate more meaningfully in research led from the global north.

“We are asking whether we can seize the moment and figure out what it will take for African scientists and researchers to lead.”

“What if, for once, we decided that Africa was the centre of the world?”

Bold, disruptive questions, such as those addressed during UCT’s Unleashing the new global university online events, can help to rewrite the African script.

“What if, for once, we decided that Africa was the centre of the world?”, asked Phakeng, quoting Divine Fuh, director of the Institute for the Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at UCT.

Africa as leader

COVID-19 has unmasked some of the global shifts that have already begun, says Rifat Atun, a professor of global health systems at Harvard University, United States, one of the event’s four participants.

Noting “the incredible capability the continent was able to mount in response to HIV”, he pointed out that capacity in Africa and among the African diaspora has expanded over the past two decades.

“African academics are now leading global collaboration at top institutions,” he said.

Atun’s comments were supported by Kevin Marsh, head of the African Oxford Initiative at Oxford University, United Kingdom. Having spent 25 years working in Kenya, he says there has already been “a shift in the centre of gravity towards Africa” with the African Academy of Sciences having attracted USD250 million for new programmes to be managed within Africa.

Institutions like the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, have taken the lead during COVID-19, Marsh said. “There is a real ability and wish to take on leadership in setting the research agenda.”

Indeed, Kelly Chibale, professor in organic chemistry and director of H3D at UCT, asserted that “Africa, too, has something to offer.” He pointed out that international collaboration is vital but warned that world-class infrastructure – including skills development – is required to lead.

Atun, however, indicated that other factors are already in place for the continent to assume leadership. Africa’s young population, together with rapid economic growth on the continent and increasing capabilities, are “positioning Africa in a sweet spot, not just to collaborate, but to lead these collaborations in an equitable way”.

African knowledge economy

When funding trickles into Africa, as much as 95% of it goes to Western institutions: “This model is no longer working,” he said.

Chibale suggested that part of decolonising science may be to “fund your own research”. However, he said Africa needs to bring something to the table if it wants to be considered an equal partner in global funding initiatives.

“Investment in science and research isn’t a luxury.”

Africa’s transition to a knowledge economy – a vision of the African Union – is vital to decolonise education, said Catherine Odora Hoppers, a professor in development education at the University of South Africa (UNISA).

“We know the knowledge system we practice has its origins in the West. We must reconcile ourselves to Africa first, then we have the power to invite others on our terms,” she said.

Part of this will involve creating an African knowledge ecosystem. According to Atun, that would include educational policies aligned with the economic agenda of the country, industries using the knowledge, and incentivising research and development.

“Investment in science and research isn’t a luxury. It will underpin economic growth, system growth and young talent in Africa,” said Atun.

Without investment from governments, scientists and communities, African knowledge production cannot progress. “You cannot build cultures that value research unless it is politically valued,” said Marsh.

Achieving this will help drive African solutions to African problems. “Less than 2% of global clinical trials happen in Africa,” explained Chibale, adding that the resulting therapies, vaccines and drugs come to Africa.

“Solutions developed in the global north to address problems in Africa will not be effective.”

Looking beyond COVID-19

A shift of power in international collaborations may have already begun, said Salome Maswime, professor of global surgery at UCT and moderator of the event. But it is up to Africans to take it further.

“Seeing Africa as part of global economy and global ecosystem means seeing collaboration as part of it,” she said.

Phakeng supported this, noting that COVID-19 has unmasked good things that have been happening in research in Africa. She cited Africa’s young population and growing economies as reasons to believe the claim that Africa is in a sweet spot to lead collaborations.

“The learnings are taken into our thinking of how to be a new global university and craft our way of being beyond COVID-19,” she said.

“You cannot build cultures that value research unless it is politically valued.”

21 July 2020 | Story Laura Rawden. Photo JE’NINE MAY.