Maths and science are the keys to unlocking Africa’s potential – says scientist

A boy walks through the river in Kroo Bay slum looking for scrap metal to sell. The river is effectively a giant sewage and everyday new garbage arrives in the water from the hills around. Kroo Bay, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 26 February, 2016

A boy walks through the river in Kroo Bay slum looking for scrap metal to sell. The river is effectively a giant sewage and everyday new garbage arrives in the water from the hills around. Kroo Bay, Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Africa’s struggle with poverty, under-development, corruption, poor governance, and disease, is all too often written off as a throw-back from colonialism; and symptomatic of the unfair international trade rules, and the ever shifting funding conditionalities imposed by agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF, on poor countries (Photo: Poverty in Sierra Leone).

Take for example, the attitude of the Koroma government of Sierra Leone towards the IMF and the World Bank, after criticising the government for its proposal to spend over $400 million on a brand new international airport, with the existing airport yet to reach its full potential, and thousands of people dying every year from poverty related health conditions.

Government media and their supporters have been quick to throw insults at the IMF and the World Bank, accusing them of imperialism and worse.

But critics of the government are not surprised at this reaction to good common sense advice from the IMF and the World Bank – who are insisting that a poor country such as Sierra Leone that is struggling to feed its people, provide reasonable health care, give them access to clean drinking water, electricity, housing, and job opportunities, could do a lot better with $400 million, than to spend it on a new international airport.

Is the government simply failing to understand basic cost-benefit analysis, or are the officials functionally illiterate – failing to understand, and make use of simple maths; or do they lack the competence required for the rigorous application of scientific and mathematical reasoning, when it comes to assessing societal problems and formulating practical, viable evidence-based solutions?

In short, what has mathematics and science got to do with rampant corruption in high places and poor governance in a poor country like Sierra Leone?

Writing in, research academic  Niel Turok, who is the Director and Niels Bohr Chair of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, is suggesting that Africa can do a lot more in tackling poverty, disease, and even corruption, through the application of simple mathematical and scientific thinking and rigour. This is what he said:

Angelina Lutambi was born into a peasant family in Tanzania’s Dodoma region, where HIV/AIDS has decimated much of the population. Her future could easily have been bleak – but Angelina had a keen aptitude for maths. She financed her own schooling by selling cold drinks with her siblings and was awarded a grant to study at the University of Dar Es Salaam.

In 2004 she went to the South African centre of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). Since then, Angelina has obtained her PhD in epidemiology from the University of Basel in Switzerland.

Today Angelina is a senior research scientist at the Ifakara Health Institute in her native Tanzania. There, she devises mathematical, statistical and computational models to inform and advise public health decisions on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other major diseases.

salone poverty3Africa has many other deep-rooted problems, including poverty, corruption and war.

Could these also be tackled through the sort of work that Angelina and her colleagues are doing? (Photo: Campaign for good governance in Sierra Leone).

Could Africa’s problems be solved through mathematical science?

Africa must produce its own technology

Such a proposal might sound outlandish while so many people still lack basic necessities like food, clean water and medicine. In the long view of history, however, mathematics and science have served as the foundation of modern society because they underlie every technology – from plumbing to telecommunications, medicine to satellites.

But the continent has another problem. It is largely a consumer rather than a producer of the technologies it needs.

If this doesn’t change, Africa will remain dependent and subject to outside control, its economies dominated by others’ exploitation of its natural resources. Africa will never escape from its reliance on international aid until it builds the capacity to develop itself.

Computers, mobile communications, and medical technologies are the modern engines of commerce, prosperity and public health. Africa will remain sidelined in these areas unless it nurtures its own experts, pioneers, and innovators.

Attitudes towards maths in Africa

This is the motivation behind AIMS, a network of training centres across the continent created to empower brilliant young Africans to become agents of change through advanced maths and science.

Our slogan – that the next Einstein should be African – is a signal of how high we are aiming.

It is not an easy task. As a native South African, I have travelled widely in many parts of the continent. Across Africa, maths is often viewed as an ivory tower pursuit, an impractical study with little connection to the real world. University maths departments are often the shabbiest on campus.

Many students only take the subject as a second choice. From primary school onwards, maths is all too often taught by rote learning and memorisation. But it is critical analysis, independent thinking and creativity that are the real keys to maths and science excellence.

These attitudes linger even beyond school and university. Elsewhere in the world, the most successful companies – Google and Facebook, for example – recruit top maths graduates straight out of university to write the complex codes that define our experience of the digital world.

From big data to artificial intelligence to intelligent cities and communities, the gears of prosperity are increasingly powered by mathematical algorithms.

Girls educationBringing African scientists together

AIMS is a pan-African initiative. There are five centres so far, in Senegal, Cameroon, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa. Ten more are planned over the next decade, creating a powerful network that will span the continent.

Every centre has a fantastic, highly motivated, pan-African student body. AIMS’ classes are incredibly diverse – a mosaic of languages, ethnicities, languages and religions. More than 30% of the students are women.

Through their common interest in maths, science and the future of Africa, the students are able to transcend the cultural and other differences that have historically divided them.

Over the past decade, AIMS has graduated a thousand students at Masters and PhD level. But its centres don’t just train brilliant young Africans in Africa. They also serve as a magnet attracting those who have studied abroad back to Africa, to work as scientific researchers.

Wilfred Ndifon from Cameroon is one: he took his PhD at Princeton but has returned to AIMS as a junior research chair. Wilfred has just solved a 70-year-old immunological puzzle called original antigenic sin, which has implications for improving vaccines.

AIMS also brings top international scientists to Africa to share and propagate their knowledge. This international reach is important, because the whole globe has a stake in Africa’s future.

Our globalised, interconnected world means that Africa’s challenges – whether starvation-driven migration or diseases like Zika or Chikungunya or terrorism – quickly become challenges to all.

These problems will only worsen with climate change, population growth, unemployment and insecurity unless Africans are encouraged and empowered to improve their countries’ conditions.

kroo bay4In March 2016, more than 500 bright scientific minds and international leaders will gather in Senegal for the inaugural Next Einstein Forum, organised by AIMS. The three-day summit will highlight emerging scientific and technical talent in Africa and elsewhere, and fuel collaboration which puts this talent to work in the cause of human development.(Photo: Poverty in Sierra Leone)

The summit’s theme is “Connecting Science to Humanity”. It will be an occasion for the most enlightened African and international scientists and leaders to strengthen their commitment to helping young people help Africa.

The problems facing Africa are complex and there are no easy answers. But one of the lessons we’ve learned in science is that the hardest problems are the ones that eventually yield the most important – and the most wonderful – solutions.

About the author:

Neil Turok is the Director and Niels Bohr Chair of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Note: Additional editing and photos by the Sierra Leone Telegraph, courtesy of


  1. My sincere thanks to The Sierra Leone Telegraph, not only for bringing us news of Sierra Leone but also for giving us the valuable opportunity to participate with our views, on vital affairs of our country which obviously ought to be the obligation of all Sierra Leoneans. My thanks are extended also to all those who contribute (each within his/her possibilities) to achieve the needed change in Sierra Leone.

    It is no secret that the lack of transparency, unprofessional conduct, and widespread corruption, are responsible for all the evils that Sierra Leone faces today.

    With the government incessantly employing individuals not because of their knowledge, patriotism, ability or professionalism, but because of family/tribal/corrupt/ relationships with higher authorities, Sierra Leone will find it difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate corruption and attain development.

    Corruption encourages and is responsible for slogans like “Why hire a lawyer, when you can buy the judge?”

    A corrupt government in a country with abundant natural resources, generates a lot of attraction. Consequently, the interests of many countries in Sierra Leone are non-altruistic. They are clearly interested in our natural resources.

    With the government thinking that their egos and pockets will be boosted and that they will be credited for the building of a new airport, the Chinese are taking advantage of and getting away with our natural resources without control, questioning or investigation.

    Strategically, brilliant thinking on the part of the Chinese. Who dares confront someone that has promised the “Pa” and his comrades an airport and the supply of an aircraft? This is just an example of the unpatriotic, misconduct, and miscalculations of our leaders.

    Because, Sierra Leone represents a huge opportunity for growth on so many levels, serious reflection is needed on the value of our natural resources and a deep consideration on how they should be managed, So we don’t end up selling our land to others for “fake favours” we owe them.

    The decline in tourism is not because of the lack of an airport, its due to many and varied factors. For the urgency of a new airport, the following questions are to be considered:

    How many Sierra Leoneans can afford flying on planes or is it meant for the ministers and the very few privileged? Will one need the airport to travel from Kono to Freetown? Where are the improvements done to make Sierra Leone a potential tourist destination? Or is it because corruption is usually easy in big construction projects to help those involved amass more personal wealth?

    Will investors be attracted to a country, partially electrified (dumsor) with deplorable infrastructures because of a second airport?

    The tough and necessary reforms to eradicate all politicians mired in corruption are the sole solution for a healthy democracy and consequently a prosperous Sierra Leone.

    How many politicians can we recall having been jailed for corruption and the fraudulent funds recovered for the benefit of Sierra Leoneans?

    In spite of the international support received for the devastating civil war and the Ebola crisis, what or where are the improvements achieved? What or where are the developments made to the towns and villages where the natural resources come from? Sure, the answers are frustrating.

    Politics is to be entered with principles and values and not for money or to become “honourable members”. We need altruistic politicians that tolerate opposition and welcome new ideas from both genders, including the young generation of Sierra Leoneans.

    We need politicians that are capable of focusing on all aspects of nation-building, with special emphasis on education, the absence of which development will never be accomplished.

    Let businessmen be businessmen and make their profits. Let politics be undertaken by people with vocation for politics – patriots who strive to obtain the best for their country and not their pockets. People to be remembered for what they did for their country and not for what they stole from their country.

    The inefficiency of both the archaic APC and SLPP in failing to eradicate this grim issue of corruption, and having failed to provide basic welfare, social justice and economic development for our people, makes the two party system a disappointment in our country with nothing else to offer.

    I am forced to conclude that we need a new political party(ies) consistent of patriotic Sierra Leoneans with diverse mentality and approach towards politics. The displeasure and traumatic experience suffered, makes this need understandable, to cover this political vacuum. Our future depends vastly on how we think and perform politically.

    Hope this idea is massively welcomed and urgent steps taken towards this inevitable change.

    Remember, Sierra Leone was once “The Athens of West Africa”. United, we can convert her to “The America/Europe of Africa”. God bless Sierra Leone.

  2. How can a behaved Sierra Leonean go against a government not ready to help the downtrodden with good sanitation, education and safe drinking water, but to fill their pockets.

    Who on earth cares about a new airport? Can the new airport feed the people or do any good to the population? All Sierra Leoneans must stand against it.

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