By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A lack of investment in science is stunting Africa's growth, driving engineers, researchers and scientists abroad and depriving the continent of billions of dollars each year, the founder of a landmark conference said on Thursday.
Africa loses $4 billion a year by outsourcing jobs in science, technology, engineering and maths, the so-called STEM fields, to foreign professionals, said Thierry Zomahoun, chairman and founder of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF).
Most scientists and engineers who train in Africa work abroad because of the continent's limited opportunities and resources, he said, noting that Africa accounts for only one percent of global scientific research.
"There are still a lot of scientists across Africa, but they have been made invisible by a lack of development and investment," Zomahoun said on the sidelines of the NEF Global Gathering - Africa's first global science and technology forum.
"We want to make them and their work visible - to attract young people to stay, and encourage those who have left to come back to aid Africa's development."
Some 700 mathematicians and scientists from 80 countries are attending the event in Dakar, Senegal, as well as various government ministers and the presidents of Senegal and Rwanda.
The forum is showcasing the work of 15 of Africa's best young scientists, who are working on issues ranging from big data and cybersecurity to public health and waste management.
Cameroonian scientist Wilfred Ndifon is using a mathematical approach to develop a vaccine for malaria, and believes his method could also be used to design vaccines for other viral diseases such as yellow fever, dengue, and even Zika.
"This forum is not just about showcasing our work, but showing the potential for science in the continent and inspiring many more African people to do even bigger things," Ndifon said.
Yet Zomahoun said scientific progress could not be funded by government and public money alone, and urged the private sector to invest in the STEM and research and development (R&D) fields.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame told the forum there were too few students in science and engineering, and that a lack of African women in these sectors was holding back the continent.
"The pressure is on to catch up and keep pace so Africa is not left in the wake of technological progress," Kagame said.
"We really cannot be satisfied with just ending extreme poverty. Our aim is shared and sustainable prosperity. And the key to that is science and innovation, bound by research."
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, editing by Tim Pearce)