AIMS’ new centre in Rwanda offers a model many of our organisations, and many entrepreneurs, can follow. It’s an exciting endeavour creating a quantum leap for the continent. But it should also make us ask hard questions about what we deem important and what we talk about.
As soon as I touched down at Kigali International Airport, Rwanda, I could feel something phenomenal was in the air. Perhaps it was because people kept telling me that Kigali is a true African city, or perhaps it was the sheer amount of beauty of Rwanda — an African nation with its own, unique African identity — or perhaps it was the amazing innovation and technology I encountered from touchdown (free Wi-Fi on the bus, MTN tap-and-go payments, and more) right to where I was going: The African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS).
After having received an invite to attend the launch of the new AIMS in Rwanda, I was pretty excited, and I must say it is truly impressive. And best of all, it’s truly Pan-African. It inspired me in ways I didn’t imagine, but also made me ask some hard questions of what it is we prioritise in our media conversations. I left asking: why on earth are we not talking more about this sort of thing?
AIMS has done amazing work across Africa and is at the forefront of our scientific and mathematics development. Yes, we actually have a vibrant scientific side, to the surprise of too many. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda summed it up nicely when he said, “We have to move ‘beyond potential’ and create a workforce that will lead [a] real transformation for Africa. It will only be done through innovative scientific training, technical advances and breakthrough discoveries. And there is not going to be a short cut.” AIMS contributes to this by having created a network across the continent via its various centres in South Africa (initially founded in Cape Town in 2003), Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, and now Rwanda. It not only educates but it also actively promotes mathematics and science in Africa in various effective ways, some of which we will cover below. It is essentially creating a pool of excellent African mathematicians and scientists who will (in turn) apply solutions to our continent’s challenges. Yes, many of them actually stay here.
It’s doing this in such unique ways that I think can speak to just about every business, entrepreneur, and organisation in Africa. It is actively addressing challenges such as the brain drain, gender equality, cost barriers, and creating ecosystems. Let me elaborate:
Typically, what happens with people like Fall is they are quickly snapped up by the likes of Harvard and Oxford, and to be honest, with few opportunities in Africa where you can grow in the mathematics and science fields, what else would you do? However, AIMS’ model keeps them here and even helps integrate scientists and mathematicians into other forms of work, where you might not expect to find these sorts of people (more on that below). It’s not just about funding them in terms of a salary but it gives them access to resources, provides collaboration between universities across the world, creates an international network of people in similar fields, and keeps the research thriving.
Dr. Rosita Yocgo, Research Manager at AIMS, says this means their graduates and research chairs get to interact with the best across the world and don’t really feel the barrier between being overseas and being here. “The more research chairs we can create the more we will be able to attract researchers that have already gone and are working in the diaspora, and be able to convince them to come back to Africa because they will have the same opportunities,” she says.
This last point is key. Not only are they looking to plug the brain drain, but also reverse it. I think that is hugely exciting.
As I was boarding the plane heading back to South Africa, I got the feeling that AIMS presents a very tangible and viable business model that other organisations and entrepreneurs should model. Think of what we could do if we created ecosystems in various fields and innovation like AIMS has done. Think what we could do if we could find ways to address the cost barriers more effectively. Think about what we could do if we could create environments where people have easy access to experts and people who are pioneering in their field. Think what we could achieve if we all, like AIMS, thought Pan-African from the beginning, making that a central focus.
But I also had a lingering feeling that something else needs to be stated, primarily in the form of questions:
Firstly, why is the media not talking about this amazing work, and showcasing the research and amazing students coming out of this institution all over Africa? Why is it that we’re just so silent?
Secondly, why is there not more partnering going on? My own work in innovation highlights that there is a tremendous amount to be gained by partnering via funding and expertise and networking. Surely there should be more of this sort of thing going on?
AIMS is truly shaping the future of our continent – and in ways I never expected. It’s making a huge impact and I, for one, am excited. But I think we all have a lot of work to do – and much of it starts with our thinking.