Dr Aida Opoku-Mensah: Global vision, local action key in integrating Science Technology and Innovation (STI)


mhealth72Written by Aida Opoku-Mensah

Now that the UN High-Level Panel Report is out and launched in various capitals, including Addis Ababa this month, African countries can put on their thinking caps and start to plan how science can be key to locally adapting the post-2015 development agenda.

Providing local solutions is a key responsibility of African scientists: “Scientists and academics can make scientific and technological breakthroughs that will be essential to the post-2015 development agenda” – UN High-Level Panel report.

The HLP Report offers some illustrations and goals annexed in the document that point to a strong role for science, technology and innovation. In this article I will examine two key goals – Ensuring Healthy Lives (Goal 4) and Ensuring Food Security and Good Nutrition (Goal 5) to illustrate the centrality of local science for delivering on health and agriculture in Africa.

With respect to Goal 4 – Ensuring Healthy Lives – we all know that Africa is home to 11 per cent of the world’s population and the focus of many research questions, from neglected tropical diseases to the continuing burden of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, and new issues arising from the pace (or lack) of development in some countries. Yet the continent accounts for just 0.3 per cent of the world’s health research output. One major reason is that African research capacity is weak. Moreover, not much research work has been done on Africa’s own scientific indigenous knowledge emanating from rural and tribal communities. Recently there have been calls for Africa treating its indigenous knowledge as a form of science mainly in the area of health where most countries have a lot of medicinal plants. By building a vast repertoire of indigenous medicine, the continent can provide viable alternatives to Western-based medicine.

Taking advantage of Africa’s mobile revolution

Health services delivery remains a huge challenge. Africa can take advantage of its mobile revolution and make a difference in addressing delivery of health services. According to the HLP Report: “the number of mobile phone subscriptions has risen from fewer than a billion to more than 6 billion (globally), and with it many mobile (m-) applications – m-banking, m-health, m-learning, m-taxes – that can radically change economies and service delivery in sustainable ways” (HLP Report, 2013 p4). Healthcare has always been a big challenge in Africa especially in remote communities where care is often most needed and consequently doctors and hospitals in these areas face isolation.

The following examples of use of technology for the health system in various parts of Africa need to be stepped up as part of the new global development agenda:

  • In Ghana, funding from a US university provides free mobile-to-mobile voice and text services between the 2,000 GPs who serve the country’s 24 million people.
  • The Praekelt Foundation – an incubator for mobile technology to improve health and well-being of people living in poverty has a variety of products designed to promote mobile penetration and universal health in Africa. TxtAlert, for example, is a mobile tool that sends unique, automated text/SMS reminders to patients on chronic medication. This reminds patients to take their medication or perform other necessary tasks.

The complete version of this commentary, which was first published in LOCAL FIRST BLOG, can be read in full here.

Dr Aida Opoku-MensahAbout the author: Aida Opoku-Mensah is currently Special Advisor to the Executive Secretary on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She was until recently the Director of ICTs, Science and Technology Division of UNECA. Whilst working in these areas she promoted Science, Technology and Innovation for Development. She specifically led and implemented impressive initiatives such as UNECA’s African Information Society Initiative (AISI) supporting African countries to develop ICT4D policies and strategies, and Technology in Government in Africa Awards (TIGA) to encourage African Governments in their use of technology for development. She was also one of the co-architects of the Innovation Prize for Africa Award (IPA). Aida’s career spans academia as well as the public and international sectors and philanthropy (working for the Ford Foundation’s West Africa office in Lagos, Nigeria). She established the Panos Southern Africa regional office, based in Lusaka, Zambia, as its first director, and has lectured at London’s City University on communication policy. Aida has written extensively on development and communication issues in Africa. She has a PhD from the University of Leeds (UK), an MA from London’s City University and a BA from the University of Ghana. She is the recent recipient (Amsterdam, April 2012) of the Geospatial World Leadership Award for ‘Making a Difference’, and also received the 2012 Africa Diplomat of the Year Award from the UK’s BEN TV 2012 diplomatic awards.