In 2013 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charitable foundation, launched an initiative known as ‘Grand Challenges’, to award grants of between $100,000 and $20 million to research projects that seek to tackle the developing world’s most significant problems – especially in agriculture and healthcare. Since inception Grand Challenges has given out more than $1 billion to more than 2,000 projects from 80 countries.

This year the Foundation and a group of partners – the China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, the United States Agency for International Development, Wellcome Trust and Grand Challenges Canada – co-hosted a Grand Challenges Summit in Beijing, China. The Summit brought together 800 persons – scientists, researchers, academics, government officials, policy-makers – to discuss ongoing and future work, as well as celebrate Chinese innovation. There were panel discussions, ’roundtable’ sessions (a meet-and-greet with young Chinese scientists, a discussion on science in Africa, among others), a series of “scientific track” sessions focusing on eight research areas (ranging from vaccines to mental health to agricultural mechanisation and traditional Chinese medicine), and poster sessions (a display of 122 posters highlighting ongoing research work related to the scientific tracks).

At the poster session I met Emmanuel Bobobee, an academic at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, who’s designed a mechanical Cassava Harvester – a simple steel implement that significantly improves the speed of harvesting. “Africa is the leading producer of cassava in the world, and we’re only using primitive tools. Can you imagine if we quadrupled output?” he told me. “Cassava can make more money for Africa than oil.”

Next to Bobobee’s poster stand was that of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan. Kenton Dashiell, IITA’s Deputy Director General for Partnerships and Capacity Development (he’s lived in Ibadan for several years, and greeted me in Yoruba) told me about the motorised ‘weeder’ being developed by the Institute – one and half years in development, with another year or so to go before they’re ready to be deployed commercially. According to Dashiell, 50 percent to 90 percent of African cassava yields are lost to weeds; this is one reason why South East Asian farmers get twice as much output as African farmers, from the same size of land. The benefits of introducing a weeding process more efficient than the use of hand and hoe are manifold: greater yield, better health for farmers (prolonged bending causes spinal deformities in labourers). There’s even an educational impact: farmers will be less likely to withdraw their kids from school to help with weeding. It’s amazing how what seems at first to be a single solution ends becoming a ‘bundle’.

On the second day of the summit, there was an intriguing plenary session on Chinese innovation, featuring Steve Yang, EVP and COO of WuXi AppTech, a global healthcare firm; Jian Wang, President of the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI); Xiaoming Yang, President of the China National Biotec Group (CNBG) and Bai Lu, Executive Vice Dean of the Tsinghua University School of Medicine.

One key theme from the conversation was the significance of 1978 as the turning point year for China. It was the year in which Deng Xiaoping took over as the country’s leader, and launched the implementation of the ‘Four Modernisations’ policy – focusing on modernising China along four lines: agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology, to prepare it for 21st century. The Chinese have summed up the three-and-half decades since then using the word ‘Reform’.

After years of international isolation, China, prodded by Xiaoping, opened up to the world. Among other things it allowed its people leave in droves to study in Europe and North America. In the early-to-mid 2000s, many of these people began to return home, armed with advanced degrees. Tens of thousands have since returned, creating a pool of talent that has helped establish a domestic culture of innovation and contributed significantly to China’s reputation as a global power.

Now, around the same time that Xiaoping was unveiling his reform agenda for China, Nigeria’s then Head of State Olusegun Obasanjo was also proclaiming that “Nigeria will become one of the ten leading nations in the world by the end of the century.” Fifteen years into the 21st century, the differences are clear. One country took solid steps to achieve its dreams, the other one acted as though progress is something you can wish or decree into existence.

China’s successes did not happen by accident. Bai Lu told the audience that China has enjoyed double-digit increases in research funding over the last 35 years. Sue Desmond-Hellman, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also mentioned that China is now the world’s second largest spender on research and development, accounting for 15 percent of the global total.

Steven Yang said that China is learning from the West so it doesn’t have to repeat what’s already been accomplished. It occurs to me that Nigeria should be similarly seeking to learn from China so we don’t waste time repeating old mistakes and reinventing wheels. Bai Lu said that over the last 35 years of “reform”, China has evolved its own culture, consisting of four elements: passion, an innovative spirit, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a can-do attitude. Those four elements seem to me stuff we’ve got in abundance in Nigeria. Which leaves more questions than answers: if we’ve got the raw materials, why haven’t we refined it into anything useful?

I’m tempted to say Nigeria needs a high-level – presidential-level, actually – office to drive the innovation agenda. An office with real power, given the mandate and funding and political backing to be disruptive in its approach to scientific and technological innovation. It will be able to find Nigerian research genius wherever they might be, and create the right conditions, within the country, for them to thrive. It will/should oversee and shake-up all of our existing publicly funded research institutes, and also be able to build partnerships with local and international partners – technology incubators, philanthropic organisations, and so on. It would also develop innovation-focused curricula across primary, secondary and tertiary education.

South Africa and Ethiopia are the African countries that have joined others around the world – Brazil, Canada, Israel, India – to create their own national Grand Challenges programmes. There’s a vacancy for Nigeria to develop something similar, as an umbrella platform for innovation for development, bringing together the public and private sectors.

Speaking of the private sector, for innovation to thrive in Nigeria it needs, not just political will from the government, but also generous infusions of private capital. We need to get our wealthiest people to understand that philanthropy in the 21st century should rise beyond basic donations of buildings and relief materials. A recent Gates Foundation initiative is something called ‘Global Good’, an “innovation laboratory.” One of the lab’s products is a vaccine storage device called Arktek, produced by a Chinese company that produces refridgerators. Arktek is able to preserve vaccines for one month using only an ice pack – no need for a power source: batteries, electricity, gas – making it ideal for African conditions. It’s already being tested in Nigeria, and will definitely play a huge role in helping us scale up our national vaccination coverage.

In September a Grand Challenges Africa launched, to be run by the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a new initiative created from a partnership between the African Academy of Sciences and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), with seed funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). At this time Grand Challenges Africa will cater to existing Africa-based Grand Challenges grantees, and in future expand the network.

It’s heart-warming to note that there’s an effort to ensure Africa is not left behind. On the final day there was a panel discussion on African innovation, moderated by Dr. Ayo Ajayi, the Gates’ Foundation Africa Programs Director. The Summit’s closing keynote speech was delivered by Her Excellency Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of the Republic of Mauritius (the first woman to be elected to that office), and a Professor of Organic Chemistry and award-winning scientist. I got a chance to interview her during the conference, on innovation in Mauritius and across Africa generally. As a continent we have a long way to go, no doubt. But at least the conversations seem to be ongoing. And the way I see it, Nigeria, as the continent’s biggest economy, ought to be playing a leadership role every step of the way.

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