Science and maths: the professional deficit is a drag on Africa's development -

Africa does not train enough scientists, mathematicians and engineers, which hinders its development. How to remedy the problem?

The disaffection of students for mathematics or physicsit is first seen in the numbers. In its 2017 report, the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF), a specialized agency of the African Union, estimates that the continent has "a deficit of 4,3 million engineers and 1,6 million scientists and researchers which, of course, constitutes a brake on its development. The cause of this phenomenon is clearly identified by the report: "More than 80% of students are currently enrolled in the social sciences and humanities. They have very little interest in science, technology and engineering disciplines. "

Science and math would they become foils? According to Ludovic Rifford, professor at the French University Sophia-Antipolis (Alpes-Maritimes) and president of the International Center for Pure and Applied Mathematics (Cimpa), this disaffection is worldwide. "I do not know how to explain it," he says. Many are probably more attracted to the business. Making a career in math, getting a job at university is difficult, especially for our African colleagues. Doing a math thesis in Africa is a struggle, especially if you have a family to feed. "

The role of mathematics

Paradoxically, when one is interested in science in Africa, in recent initiatives, in national or regional centers of excellence, it is often names of mathematicians or institutions teaching this discipline that come to mind.

Of course, South Africa's Neil Turok, founder of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (Aims), is swarming across a growing number of countries on the continent and is behind the highly influential Next Einstein Initiative. We also think of the French mathematician and politician Cédric Villani, very involved with the Aims, the Nigerian Hallowed Olaoluwa, who continues his research at Harvard, Burkinabè Stanislas Ouaro ...

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All stress the importance of mathematics and the role they can play in the development of Africa. An idea shared by the ACBF report, which advises to focus on teaching maths and engineering to "build a critical mass of educated human resources" from which will emerge "the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and scientists ".

In Africa, wrote Turok from 2016, studying maths is often seen as the choice to lock oneself in an ivory tower

Lost, the lecture halls are half empty, and the image of math does not really improve. This discipline remains perceived as difficult, austere, abstract. "In Africa," wrote Turok at 2016, "studying math is often considered the choice to lock yourself in an ivory tower. Hallowed Olaoluwa nods. Whenever he pleads in favor of his favorite subject, he is steadfastly told: "In what way is it useful? On what applications can this lead? "

If Africa remains a consumer, not a producer, of the technologies it needs, it will remain underdeveloped and under the control of foreigners

In isolation

This suspicion of uselessness is very similar to that which weighs on basic research, which is often accused, as opposed to applied science or research and development, of operating in a vacuum. Physicist and mathematician at the University of Orsay (near Paris), member of the Aims and president of the Association for the Scientific Promotion of Africa (Apsa), Vincent Rivasseau sweeps the objection: "The fundamental science these are the applications of tomorrow. For example, prime numbers have long been considered something very, very abstract. But today, all communications encryption devices use it! "If Africa remains a consumer, not a producer, of the technologies it needs, it will remain underdeveloped and under foreign control," says Turok.


Many scientists say it: maths helps to understand, and sometimes to solve, most of the problems Africa is facing. These problems, Villani believes, are even "intrinsically mathematical". Without math, how to develop modern technologies in the fields of telecoms, satellites, medicine, epidemiology, urban planning or even the organization of work?

Many of these problems are mathematical in their structure as well as in their dynamics

Can they help reduce poverty, disease, lack of access to water, food and energy? "Many of these problems are mathematical in their structure as well as in their dynamics," said Cameroonian Wilfred Ndifon, who after a doctorate at Princeton, teaches in Ghana, South Africa and Canada. Like his colleagues, he is convinced that maths can at least be used to create models and develop algorithms useful for solving problems encountered in the field.

Crazy rush of specialists? Some are not far from thinking it: never believe an algorithm will fill a stomach or vaccinate a child! Vincent Rivasseau nuances the words of his colleagues: "I totally agree with Turok and Villani, but I will probably be less lyrical. Maths may not be the key to everything, but they are still the language of nature, a universal language. Without them, you condemn yourself to stay in the empirical. Take urban development. By using math, you give yourself the opportunity to quantify flows, for example, calculate how many people or vehicles will pass to this place, which will allow you to size the infrastructure. The result obtained will necessarily be more operational. "

Where is the training of mathematicians?

Last question: admitting that maths indeed have a major role to play in the development of the continent, where is the training of mathematicians? Are there enough of them, and their level is enough? On the first point, the answer is clearly negative. And, on the second, more nuanced. We often hear that maths are not very well taught here. That in primary and secondary schools in particular, the "by heart" would be privileged at the expense of critical analysis. The testimonials that Young Africa has collected contradict this idea, at least in the western part of the continent.

We interviewed the Senegalese Sheikh Latyr Fall, currently a PhD student in Quebec, Beninese Tite Yokossi, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after passing through a large Parisian high school, and another Senegalese, Mamadou Ndao, a former student of the EDHEC Business School. Everyone agrees that, when they landed in preparatory class or at university, they had no problem level, quite the contrary. "In college, the level was pretty much the same as I had in second," recalls Ndao, while Fall, who spent time at the Saint-Louis Military Prytanée, laughs: "In my first year in Montpellier, my physics teacher wanted to know if I had already attended his classes and which school I came from. "

These words in no way surprise the French Ludovic Rifford: "In Africa, he believes, some countries teach the program that was the program of France ten or twenty years ago. At home, the level has dropped. When they arrive here, their knowledge is superior. This is true for Benin, Senegal, but also countries like Romania. African students to make the most of this gap.

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