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Private-sector research shows the way in Africa

Frederik Wittock (Johnson&Johnson) and Tapiwa Chiwewe (IBM Research Africa) exposed the need of scientists in their science driven companies ©Rémy Gabalda/Afriscitech

Science is not only for the academy: private companies develop their own problem-solving programmes, and need skilled human ressources to succeed.

It is often the case that public institutions in Africa are not suited to tackle the myriad of African challenges alone. Fortunately, the private sector is chiming in, using the talent and potential in Africa to help find solutions for the continent.

Tapiwa Chiwewe, a research manager at IBM Research, has also worked as a researcher in academia. He is well positioned to know about what the private sector has to offer for researchers in Africa.

African skills for African problems

“There is a lot of talent in Africa,” says Chiwewe, who leads the advanced and applied artificial intelligence group using artificial intelligence to develop solutions for some of Africa’s grand challenges. “We need to use the talent and skills in Africa to solve African problems.”

With labs in Kenya and South Africa, IBM Research leads the charge in tapping into a diversity of research talent on the continent. African researchers at IBM are studying financial service solutions, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and quantum computing.

Research, mandatory for development

No country can develop without research. This is according to Lamine Gueye, the rector of the Alioune Diop University of Bambey, who is a neuroscientist among the many other hats he wears. “Africa needs human resources with high skills, Africa needs you,” he said to the audience of young African researchers at the Young African Scientists in Europe (YASE 2018) conference recently held in Toulouse.

He acknowledged that while many young researchers and students get opportunities to work in public sector institutions, this might not be what they want. He said some researchers have ambitions to work in the private sector, such as in tech companies.

Make the world our lab

Frederik Wittock considers the company he works for, Johnson & Johnson, a science-based foundation. “We want to make the world our lab,” he said, emphasising that the company is always looking to collaborate with other research institutions in Africa, both public and private. He says that Johnson & Johnson can be part of the solution of the many issues that face the African continent.

For instance, the YASE 2018 conference started with a sobering presentation by Quarraisha Abdool-Karim, from KwazuluNatal University in Durban, South Africa, on the latest statistics showing that South Africa is losing the battle against new HIV infections. Wittock said Johnson & Johnson have invested heavily in HIV research, and working to develop vaccines for diseases such as dengue fever with their “World Without Disease” programme.

From academia to private companies

For young researchers working in academia, it can be difficult to know how to be suitable for employment in private sector companies, especially for students who consider themselves low-skilled. Replying to one such concern put forward by the audience, all three panelists agreed that researchers who wish to work in the private sector should “go out there and try, it is not easy but try to stretch your muscles.”

Some researchers have ambitions to not only join the private sector, but start their own companies and for this too, the panelists had some advice. They said a researcher does not have to start working in the private sector in order to start a company, but they need to understand that starting one isn’t easy; a researcher in Africa needs to understand African problems and use their company to solve them.

Sibusiso Biyela, ScienceLink

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