AIMS takes Africa on a quantum leap into science

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:

  1. It has a huge focus on gender equality. Maths and science are notoriously well known for having a small female workforce. But up to 30 percent of AIMS’ graduates are now female. It truly makes an effort. For example, if a woman is pregnant, AIMS has a saying that her body may be pregnant but her brain isn’t, meaning she can continue studying and working. They make sure that she is well supported, provided antenatal care, and they even set up homes on the campus for family members to help take care of the baby while she is still studying. In line with its high focus on gender equality, AIMS has also just elected its first female research chair, Dr Gisele Mophou. It’s amazing to see a female mathematician and scientist at this level.
  1. Its Next-Einstein Initiative keeps our brains here. It plans to see 15 research centres established in Africa (it currently has three). In addition to Mophou, the research chairs include the likes of Prof. Mouhamed Moustapha Fall, whose credentials and work has been internationally recognised (some years ago he was being dubbed the ‘next Einstein’ in popular, international media. I wrote about him in my book Disrupting Africa where he is using mathematics to help curb over-fishing). He forms part of the Next-Einstein Forum (NEF) fellows, which is doing groundbreaking work in the field of maths and science here in Africa. The Next-Einstein Initiative, however, also plugs the brain drain by partnering with the Canadian government, the German government, and the U.K. as well as other institutions, so that the research initiatives have access to resources that keeps them on the continent.

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.

  1. It is focusing on the future – quantum science. The Rwanda launch coincided with the launch of AIMS’ Quantum Leap Africa Initiative, where it will (for the first time) create an environment that focuses on quantum science, bringing a new dimension to the ecosystem it has been developing for quite some time.
  1. It finds creative ways to stimulate a new ecosystem. I’ve spoken a great deal about a new technological ecosystem for Africa, and AIMS seems to have a very similar vision through what it’s doing. This launch in Rwanda is the first time AIMS is formalising the ecosystem it has been developing – an ecosystem within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. By putting learners from all these fields together in one network, they share resources, ideas, and creativity. In times past many of these fields worked in isolation but it’s becoming increasingly clear that these fields now intersect, and so the people working within them and studying them should too. At the launch, I could feel the excitement in the air that this was a ground-breaking event; a paradigm shift of sorts with regards to where the future is going.
  1. It has a 24-hour learning environment. Lecturers and learners stay on campus, even eating together. This model is producing amazing fruit. It’s not just data that people are dealing with but the establishment of relationships is key, and immersing people in the world 24/7 has a way of making it truly alive rather than just something in a textbook. It’s worth adding that the lecturers at AIMS have come from the likes of Oxford, Harvard, and other amazing institutions across the world – meaning students have easy, relational access to these bright minds who have pioneered in their fields.
  1. It actively creates unique opportunity and work for learners. Rather than giving them tuition and them sending them off into the sunset, AIMS actively works at placing learners in key positions. “We’ve done this really well,” says Mimi Kalinda, Director of Communications at AIMS. “Usually, students doing PhD’s and Masters in the fields of science and mathematics end up in academia. But we believe the mathematical sciences are applicable to industry and policy-making. Mathematics can be applied to agriculture, energy, food shortage, and so on. So we have a focused programme where we find opportunities for our graduates in industries and/or policy-making, so that not all of them end up in academia. Some obviously do but through this initiative, we want to ensure that we can open up their options and viewpoints on how they contribute to the continent.”
  1. Its tuition is free. This blew my mind. Students go through an 18-month programme that is free. “If you’re a really bright student you don’t need to have cost as a barrier,” says Mimi Kalinda. “It’s obviously a stringent and rigorous process to get in, but once you’re in you get your Masters degree for free.” Accommodation is also free.

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.

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