School of Graduate Studies, Research and Extension holds colloquium on Strategic Leveraging of Diaspora Academics Brain Cycling Key to Africa Innovation (AI)

Prof. Samuel Mugo

On Thursday, May 19, the School of Graduate Studies, Research and Extension hosted a colloquium where Prof. Samuel Mugo, Professor of Analytical Chemistry at MacEwan University, Canada presented a paper on “Strategic Leveraging of Diaspora Academics Brain Cycling Key to Africa Innovation (Ai)

In his paper, Prof. Mugo stated that Africa’s contribution to scientific research intellectual property (IP) remains anemic and knowledge inflows by Africa’s diaspora academics remains untapped, however through an enabling strategic policy framework, the expertise of diaspora academics can be cycled back to catalyze Africa innovation (Ai) and development.

Prof. Mugo went ahead to describe and give context to his research breaking it down to the following sections:
The State of the African Continent
According to the United Nations 2020 estimate, Africa population stands at 1.3 billion, accounting for ~16.7% of the world population with annual growth rate of 2.5%, the fastest globally. All African countries remain far from meeting the base level of ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ of their growing population and rank poorly in their progress to realization of the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGS). Variation of 2030 UN SGDs have been rephrased in the African Union Agenda 2063, and member countries have made a “commitment” to achieve these goals. However, a structured framework on a metrical evaluation to track continental and national progress remain a missing core link. On all goals, progress if any has been at best marginal due to contextualized policy framework misalignment, runaway population growth, fragile institutions ill-equipped for proactive response to disproportionate impacts to global issues such as climate change and COVID-19 pandemic, and in general, poor governance. As such, Africans are generally faced with ‘fight or flight’ realities, which mirrors the physiological effects of elevated stress (‘fight or flight’) hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. It can be said at a biological level, the African people face high levels of allostatic load—the ‘physiological wear and tear’ due to chronic stress. Indeed, Mugo (author) lab has developed wearable cortisol sensors and is carrying out a research project that is confirming Africans in general have elevated cortisol levels in their sweat. Faced with these challenges and accelerated by the modern reality of globalization and a world in fierce competition for human capital, Africa has increasingly lost its innovation engine and talent at its prime, with massive professional’s ‘flight’ to the Global North, a phenomenon christened the ‘brain drain’. Arguments have been made against the use of the phrase ‘brain drain’ in favor of politically neutral terms such as ‘brain circulation’ or ‘brain exchange.’ However, especially in the case of Africa, ‘asymmetric brain exchange’ drains talent from Africa in a disproportionate non-symbiotic mutualism, resulting in a net loss of Africa high qualified personnel (HQP) capacity. For example, according to UNESCO report 2016, the share of high-skilled individuals in Sub-Saharan Africa is among the lowest in the world. High-skilled emigration rate from these countries to Europe and USA was reported to grow from 11% in 1995 to 16% in 2010 (likely higher today).

While all professionals are of high value to our integral society, science, technology, and innovation (STI) are the core skills essential to finding solutions to the UN SDGs. Yet, it is estimated one-third of African scientists and research professionals drain out of Africa, distressing capacity for training and development in critical sectors such as healthcare, education, and engineering. According to UNESCO’s 2013 report, in most African countries, there is one qualified engineer for a population of 6,000 people, compared to one engineer per 200 people in China. Thus, engineering talent to build infrastructure such as railway lines, roads, sewer lines etc., is hired from other countries, especially China, at exorbitant costs incurred as concessional loans, which drowns African governments in unsustainable public debt. Dire situations present themselves in healthcare where the general ratio of physicians to patients is reported to be 1 to 8,000 compared to the minimum WHO recommendation of 1 physician to 5,000. With her healthcare system in a dysfunctional state and in ‘normal’ times unable to cope with typical tropical infections such as malaria, cholera etc., the impacts from COVID-19 significantly compounds the human cost in the African continent. As such, the crisis of our time presents an opportunity for African’s to urgently rethink, and self-determine their own destiny through bold action-oriented policies.

Quality higher education enterprise is at the heart of training innovative and resilient highly skilled human capital, primed to divergently solve the SDGs. Yet, African universities are highly deficient in quality and quantity of professors. Unique to African reality, there are currently more African PhD holders outside the continent than inside it. Coupled with anemic investment in research and innovation in Africa from lack of higher education policy framework that nurtures innovation mindset, it is not surprising Africa is poorly represented as a contributor to intellectual property (IP) in science and technology. Yet, unequivocally, innovation is the key to African stability and growth.

The Curse of Dependence of Lucrative Financial Diapora Remittances
In recognition of the contribution of diaspora to their homeland countries, governments have narrowly focused their policies on tapping diaspora remittances, which in some African countries exceeds official development aid and private capital. For example, in 2020, Kenya’s 3 million diaspora population remitted ~3 billion US dollars annually, nearly 3% of her GDP. In Nigeria the remittances are over 21.7 US billion dollars. While these remittances come with some ‘adrenaline busts’ of (short-term) economic benefits, without a nuanced policy framework focused on investment to longer-term yielding priorities, the remittances can result in a negative dependency cycle that impends Africa’s socio-economic wellbeing. For example, in Kenya, it is estimated ~5% of diaspora remittances are spent on funerals, and ~30% of the diaspora investment goes to real estate, wherein, there is lack of proper land use and zoning practices. As such, the meagre arable land is subdivided to unproductive units for residential homes, aka, ‘concrete jungles’, negatively impacting food security and water supply. A thoughtful approach would be to develop a framework where even a measly 1-5% of the diaspora remittances are matched by the government and allocated to well-structured research institutes in universities. This approach can alleviate the current reliance on foreign countries donations to the minimal research done in the continent, a dependency that continues to perpetuate imperialism.

Beyond Financial Remittances to Focus on Brain Circulation
Beyond the financial remittances, the largest untapped potential remains utilization of knowledge inflows of the sub-Saharan Africa diaspora academics and professionals, especially African scientists, whose skills can be valuable in catalyzing Africa to be a global player in technology development. Yet, migrant African scientists continue to robustly contribute innovations to their resident countries abroad. It is proposed with visionary policy framework, the enormous African diaspora academic professionals brain talent could be cycled back to foster the creation of homegrown Africa innovations (Ai) contextualized to African issues.

The proposed professional diaspora brain recirculation model for innovation competitiveness is not new. The most radical strategic transformation of brain drain to brain circulation happened in Germany in 1954, Israel in 1960s/70s, and in contemporary times, China. China facilitates the inter-mobility of Chinese professors between their home country and host countries, often USA and Canada. It is reported that by 2017 out of ~5.2 million Chinese nationals who went abroad for higher education, ~3.1 million returned through government incentivization program. This phenomenon greatly contributed to science and technology innovation take off in China, presently on course to overtake the USA in intellectual property (IP) and patents generation. The mobile scientists and returnees also play an instrumental role in linking China to the global knowledge network. In addition, other countries such as India, Mexico, Costa Rica etc., are also making notable progress in developing incentive policies that mobilize diaspora academics to contribute technical skills to their countries, especially in food and biotechnology, information technology, and materials science.

Operationalization of African Diaspora Academics Brain Cycling
Success in other countries indicate that African countries can do the same to tap into this gold-mine of untapped potential. Diaspora African academics can collaborate and establish research labs and innovation hubs in their motherland universities, leveraging opportunities bilaterally. The opportunities could include, sharing of research infrastructure and innovation ideas across, mobilizing research students between their research groups spread between the two or more countries, and fostering multi/bilateral research networks, thus creating a knowledge exchange and innovation ecosystems. This approach can also booster the quality and competency of training of HQP in Africa. African universities and especially the Pan African University should exploit this brain recirculation approach to fast-track Africa’s science and technology innovation and social development. African countries can learn from Chinese strategic brain recirculation approach, by pragmatically focusing on ‘low-hanging fruit’ initiatives with lower cost but high net shorter-term realization returns that rapidly impact primary sectors such as health and agriculture. Similar to Mobile money, (aka MPESA in Kenya) technology, the African diaspora recirculation strategy can focus on customizing and adapting already known innovations especially in ‘smart’ sensors-based agriculture and healthcare, and low-cost agri-based valorization manufacturing. Numerous African academic diaspora scientists have these skillsets and are well positioned to contribute with agility in these ‘low hanging fruit’ technology initiatives. However, high education policy framework that incentivizes and removes barriers are urgently needed. Individual universities in the continent could indeed use their governance autonomy and distinguish their inventiveness by tapping to the diaspora brain cycling opportunity.

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