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Paying It Forward: How to Sustain New Generations of Female and Youth Leaders in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in Africa


By Edith Kirumba
Postdoctoral Research Officer at the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS)

As Africa gradually becomes a knowledge-based society, the role of women and youth in this transformation cannot be overemphasized. African youth and women are the driving forces of Africa's development due to their zeal, innovativeness, and aspirations about the future of the continent. The African Youth Charter defines 'youth' as persons aged between 15 and 35 years. Africa is the most youthful continent with close to 65% of its population being men and women below 35 years of age. The youth and women in Africa are faced with numerous challenges including illiteracy, unemployment and underemployment, gender based inequalities, isolation from the development process, and rampant poverty. Science, technology and innovation (STI) are crucial to Africa's development and global competitiveness, and the youth and women are key partners in this journey.

However, the participation of the youth and women in STI has been hindered by several factors, such as low school enrollment and retention rates; inadequate skills and training; disconnect between education and industry demands; lack of mentorship and poor entrepreneurship; insufficient support for innovation; inequalities and marginalization; lack of interest, especially by women due to cultural biases; and insufficient investment in STI by African governments, amongst others. Integration of STI into Africa's development agenda will have to take into account the urgent need to empower the youth and women to take up more prominent roles in STI and development in the continent. Sustaining a critical mass of youth and women leaders in STI will require concerted efforts from African governments, academia, civil society, policymakers, and research to harness the potential of youth and women to contribute to sustainable development and the achievement of millennium development goals. African institutions and policy-making bodies have to make STI attractive to its young men and women.

For Africa to leap frog towards an STI- and knowledge-driven society, governments and key stakeholders in all spheres of development must strategize how to address several pressing issues. Poor governance and a lack of transparency and accountability reinforce entrenched attitudes and behaviour, exacerbating gender inequalities and biases that favour men over women in STI. This is also compounded by incoherent policy and legal frameworks. In order for these issues to be overcome, the quality of education across the continent must be improved, including reducing redundancy in curricula and promoting reliable and sustainable funding for STI. Also, the women and youth agenda for STI advancement in Africa will need to focus on addressing existing bottlenecks. Some suggested ways include capacity-building in STI through appropriate training and education; orienting the education curricula towards STI, matching research with industry demands; identifying and/or building centres of excellence and incubation hubs for innovation; developing mentorship programmes; policy development that supports STI, such as through the promotion of modern technology; shifts in attitudes and behaviour towards STI and gender equity; cooperation and partnerships between African countries and with Northern countries, which serve to support creation of investment friendly conditions; and providing an enabling environment for those in the diaspora to return and share their skills and expertise.

All is not gloom for Africa. Some African countries have made innovation milestones through creating enabling conditions for their young men and women to design ground breaking technologies that have transformed millions of lives. One such revolutionary technology that has received international accolades is the Mpesa (Mobile money) technology. The Mpesa mobile money transfer system was conceptualized by a young Kenyan student and is currently the most advanced mobile money transfer system globally, allowing millions of users to transfer money and make payments through their mobile phones. The Mpesa technology has been launched in Tanzania, South Africa, India, Afghanistan, and plans are underway to introduce it in Egypt. Another admirable technology is the Ushahidi (Swahili for testimony) technology - an internet based platform developed by young Kenyan men and women to report cases of violence and peace initiatives during the after math of the post-election violence in 2008. The platform has since then transformed into a fully-fledged organisation with an international reach and broadened its mandate to cover issues related to human rights, transparency and social justice.

To stimulate many more success stories in Africa, the African Technology and Policy Studies Network (ATPS)  launched AYFST (African Youth Forum for Science and Technology) and AWFST (African Women Forum for Science and Technology) in 2005 and 2008 respectively. The two programs were established based on the understanding of the need for Africa to own and contribute to its development trajectory through awakening the conscience and creativity of the young brilliant men and women across the continent. Through small grants, the programs endeavour to cultivate a culture of creativity and innovation, to build capacity, offer targeted training and sensitization, provide mentorship, promote incubation initiatives, and encourage peer to peer dialogue and entrepreneurship. The AYFST and AWFST forums founded the Y I CAN (Youth Innovation) and WE CAN (Women Innovation) challenge programs that run concurrently to build a generation of youth and women who will take the continent forward by solving pressing development problems through innovations in science and technology.

Organizations with a presence on the continent have also taken up the challenge of development in Africa through initiatives to sustain new generations of youth and women in STI. One of the most prominent initiatives is one driven by the African Union. The Union has formed a youth division that implements youth programs in the continent, promotes partnerships and collaboration, mobilizes resources, contributes to the development and review of youth policies and legislations, and enhances capacity building and training activities. The youth division also developed a plan of action dubbed the African Youth Decade running from 2009 to 2018 aimed at channelling resources and stakeholder support towards youth development in Africa. It is initiatives such as these that offer hope for the youth and women of Africa and for the globe. Indeed, the 21st century belongs to Africa.

Related Program

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more