AFRICAN governments need to invest more in engineering sciences for the continent to meet its ambitious infrastructure development goals, Harvard professor Calestous Juma said at the World Economic Forum on Africa on Friday.
Last year, African heads of state approved an infrastructure development programme that envisages investments of $360bn up to 2040.
By 2020, they aim to invest $67.9bn in the priority areas of energy, transboundary water supply, transport, and information and communications technology.
"Line ministries need to start building their own engineering schools.… This is how China did it," said Prof Juma, who is also co-chair of the African Union’s panel on science and technology.
"If you are building a water irrigation scheme, you need to add a water training institute — it means the minister of water and education need to talk. That requires high level co-ordination, which requires presidents playing a bigger role."
Prof Juma said while an increasing number of African leaders were technically trained and recognised the role of science and technology in economic development, not a single one had a science adviser. In contrast, US President Barack Obama had a council of science and technology advisers, a body that has been in place since the mid-1970s. The government of the UK had a chief scientific adviser, and a similar post exists in India.
Prof Juma said Africa had a new generation of leaders better equipped to take the continent forward. Africa needed to be creative with the way it leveraged its resources to build and maintain new infrastructure. African countries should turn their militaries into "development armies".
"It was done by the Roman army, which built roads," he said. Ironically, the military was often more receptive to this idea than civilians.
At a later session, Swedish International Development Minister Gunilla Carlsson said African countries needed to invest more in schooling for girls and put more money into research infrastructure to foster innovation.
Philips Electronics CEO Frans van Houten said " innovation has to be meaningful". It had to consider local context and needs.