Despite the warnings levied by public health officials after previous viral disease outbreaks such as Ebola and the H1N1 flu, the coronavirus still managed to wrong foot governments the world over, hastening the rapid, globe-encircling spread of Covid-19.
The proliferation of infections led nations to pause the economic activity and industrial production, and put untold stress on global supply chains.
Critical goods, especially medical supplies, had to be rationed, even in the developed world.
Even vital medical treatments had to be suspended and rationed in many instances, to say nothing of those people who could not be diagnosed and treated for other illnesses while healthcare systems were overrun with Covid-19.
The pandemic has laid bare African countries’ weaknesses in protecting their citizens. Beyond healthcare, the Covid-19crisis has unmasked, too, the fragility of Africa’s security, infrastructure, and financial systems. And while infection and mortality rates have been less pronounced in the region than in, for example, the US or Western Europe, the pandemic’s impact cannot be understated.
The consequences have been especially devastating in terms of public finance and welfare.
Africa’s technology gap with the rest of the world is widening, and the region depends excessively on primary commodities and natural resources for fiscal revenues and foreign exchange earnings.
Both of these factors have been major drivers of persistent intergenerational poverty and recurrent balance of payments crises. At the time of writing, vaccines are beginning slowly to be distributed in some parts of the world, and there is light, however dim, at the end of the tunnel.
But Covid-19 continues to rage in most places, and it is important to raise questions about what comes next and how African countries should plan for the post-pandemic era.
Those questions must certainly include the following: – How long will it take African national economies to recover? How long will it take for Africa’s public healthcare systems to convalesce? What must be done to prepare African countries better for future pandemics? – How do African countries use the lessons from this crisis as a platform for innovation and to stimulate dynamic, competitive economies?
Resourceful, ingenious, local solutions
Despite the magnitude of the challenges posed by the pandemic, African researchers were able to respond and innovate effectively, developing local solutions to the technical trials and tribulations of monitoring and treating Covid-19.
In the later stages of infection, symptoms often include severe respiratory distress, which frequently requires putting a patient on a ventilator.
At the height of the pandemic, there was a global shortage of ventilators, and it was unclear whether Africa was ever going to get access to sufficient supplies to treat patients in intensive care units.
There besides, it wasn’t always clear whether the ventilators available on the open market would suit African hospitals, which must often deal with inconsistent power supplies and a scarcity of trained personnel.
Many ventilators on the open market are ‘overdesigned’ and necessitate specialised training for staff.
The response from researchers and engineers in African universities was ingenious. First, they focused on developing a fundamental understanding of the mechanism involved in helping a patient with respiratory distress breathe. From that point, they were able to propose solutions using readily available local materials.
A team from Nigeria’s Bayero University Kano designed a ventilator that was based on an emergency ventilator (‘e-Vent’) concept devised at MIT, but which included several important and creative alterations. Rather than relying on expensive and difficult-to procure motors used in commercial ventilators, the BUK team was able to adapt windshield-wiper motors to their design, as well as rewrite from scratch the e-Vent’s control algorithms.
The engineers and medical experts at the university were able to complete the project, from the initial concept design to demonstration of the prototype, in just one month.
In addition to BUK, four further Nigerian universities were responsible for several other ventilator solutions that make use of local materials.
This is extremely encouraging, as it demonstrates the capacity of African research scientists and engineers to develop solutions to the unique problems confronting the continent while leveraging global resources.
Another area that the pandemic has helped crystalise is telemedicine, especially the remote monitoring of patients with Covid-19 but who are not sick enough to require hospitalisation, while keeping them away from patients who do not have the disease.
It quickly became apparent that employing a simple electronic device that monitors temperature, pulse and blood oxygenation levels, and which can be connected to a patient’s mobile phone via Bluetooth, would be effective when allocating scarce healthcare resources.
Using practically ubiquitous mobile telephone technology, healthcare workers are able to simultaneously collect data and communicate securely with their patients.
Designing these telemedicine systems went a lot further than just providing hardware; researchers in Africa were also able to incorporate artificial intelligence.
They explored machine learning algorithms to monitor patients’ progress and trained a deep neural network using data gathered from local hospitals and other sources. This architecture could drastically reduce the cost of healthcare delivery in both Africa’s urban centres and its rural areas.
A third area in which innovation has shined through is education. Some private universities have migrated their classroom instruction into online domains, with professors able to conduct lectures and tutorials remotely.
Perhaps what was most innovative was the introduction of hands-on experiences and classroom demonstrations through the use of videos that often were prepared by institutions in Europe and North America.
This also helped expand students’ horizons, as they could access online materials prepared by those institutions.
It also led to experimentation with the ‘flipped’ classroom concept, in which students watch pre-recorded lectures before coming to class for further discussions. The steps taken in these three areas – ventilators, telemedicine and education – illustrate beyond a doubt the capacity of African research scientists and engineers to conduct multi-disciplinary, mission-oriented research that addresses urgent, complex problems.
The experience of the Covid-19 crisis and the spotlight shone on African innovators should enable us to identify the areas that require and are most deserving of increased investment.
If this process is conducted effectively, universities and research institutions throughout the continent could grow into engines of innovation and entrepreneurship, creating value and dynamic national economies that can compete in a globalised world.
Reorienting education and emboldening research
Three components are necessary to create African innovation engines: first, there must be a platform that encourages and supports mission oriented, multi-disciplinary research; second, specialists must be trained in Africa who can create, execute and deliver on these research programmes; and third, there must be infrastructure in place for efficient technology transfers, from research laboratories into the hands of consumers, with a keen focus on achieving success for the overall public good.
In order to cultivate the necessary personnel, our education systems must be reoriented from simply information transfer to a focus on critical thinking and innovation.
This must include new approaches to assessing student competence – the current model that of evaluating what students are able to remember (or rather to regurgitate) through annual examinations, is no longer suitable.
Though it would necessitate serious curriculum reforms, schools should incorporate independent projects about real-world problems that bring together all the elements a student has learned in the classroom into their appraisals.
This reorientation must occur at all levels, beginning, I would argue, with tertiary education, the objective of which is to promote the development of critical thinking and open ended problem-solving.
Practical reforms can then be propagated at the secondary and primary education levels. At the research level, the agendas that African scientists, engineers and designers pursue should be motivated to resolve the greatest challenges facing societies throughout the region.
To delineate what exactly those challenges are, we must paint a picture of the type of Africa that we want to live and work in 10 years from now and in the distant future.
There are myriad projects to aspire towards, from universal health coverage and energy ubiquity, to building a green economy and supporting environmental protection.
Having goals like these in mind will spur developments in cutting-edge technologies, including biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, among others.
It is important, too, that graduate students, while working on problems relevant to African societies, are competitive globally and remain in close contact with their peers in other parts of the world, be that through publishing in top journals or participating in conferences.
Enabling researchers to spend extended periods of time in top laboratories in Western Europe, North America, Japan, South Korea and China would also prove invaluable for cross-border knowledge transfer.
On the issue of knowledge and especially transfer in Africa, the most important issue is to provide adequate access to capital intended to promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurism.
Simultaneously, university graduates and researchers must be emboldened to take the plunge and bring their products and innovation to market.
Encouraging corporate involvement in education, particularly in research through industry mentorship of students, could open new and exciting avenues for graduates.
Within the academic realm, insights and guidance provided members of the African diaspora who hold research positions in reputed, overseas universities and corporate laboratories would prove doubly beneficial and relevant to Africa’s up and-coming innovators.
Practically speaking, it would behove African policymakers to encourage industry to invest more resources in research and development, perhaps through mechanisms such as tax credits or the matching of grants to pay for precompetitive research.
Equally important will be the building of a robust intellectual property infrastructure – modelled, for instance, on the European Patent Organisation – including the legal framework that will make intellectual property accessible throughout the continent.
Likewise, universities and research institutes in Africa must be encouraged to develop a culture of technology transfers, including the establishment of technology licensing offices.
The Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated plainly the challenges Africa faces and illuminated the fault lines in its existing socio-economic infrastructure.
But Africans’ response to the crisis has revealed, too, their incredible capacity for ingenuity and innovation.
The work done by researchers, engineers, and designers to transcend various constraints is deeply admirable.
They have demonstrated definitively how deserving they are of greater support.
If Africa is to harness the creativity of its scientists and engineers to devise sustainable solutions to local problems, it is critical that we create and incentivise an effective and globally competitive research ecosystem.
The alternative scenario – wherein the Covid-19 crisis is just one manifestation of Africa’s existential challenges, from healthcare to industrial development and widening inequality – does not bear thinking about.
Tayo Akinwande Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the European Union or the International Media Support