Päivi Lindfors

Päivi Lindfors: The allure of Africa

11 Jan 2021

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is in the process of drafting an Africa strategy for Finland. The strategic priorities identified so far include equal partnership and cooperation with Africa, not on its behalf. The Academy of Finland contributes to the process by promoting research partnerships focusing on Africa. Research partnerships are the best form of development aid and potentially a gateway to commercial ventures.

In March 2020, the European Commission published a communication on a new strategy with Africa, which is expected to be adopted at the African Union–European Union Summit next spring. I was delighted to see how prominently research and science featured in the Commission’s communication. Africa is also one of the priorities of the current programme of the Finnish Government, and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs is in the process of drafting an Africa strategy for Finland.

Furthermore, Africa is one of the eight strategic themes of the Team Finland Knowledge (TFK) network, and several Finnish universities are ramping up their profile in Africa. The University of Helsinki already has research stations in Kenya and Madagascar, and the University of Turku has a plug-in campus in Namibia.

Why is everyone so into Africa right now? Africa is one of the world’s fastest growing markets. According to forecasts, Africa will account for 40% of the world’s population by 2050. To quote TFK Ambassador to Pretoria Iina Soiri, “the stars of the future will come from Africa”. In South Africa, for example, the number of researchers is growing rapidly, and the country’s share of global scientific publications has risen in the 21st century, although investment in research and development remains low (at 0.8% of GDP).

The problems related to the overexploitation of the Earth’s resources are the same for everyone ─ Finland and African countries alike. Research can help find solutions to global challenges such as climate change, overconsumption of natural resources and sustainable energy. Africa has a lot to offer in these respects, and we have a lot to learn. By working together with African researchers, we can solve problems in a way that benefits the global community as a whole.

Academy of Finland’s role in promoting cooperation with Africa

All of the Academy of Finland’s research funding instruments have an international dimension, which also covers cooperation with African partners. The Academy also awards funding towards cooperation between Finnish and African research organisations through a number of co-funding networks, together with African funding agencies and through the Academy Programme for development research (DEVELOP).

The Academy has had a bilateral agreement on funding cooperation with South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF) since 2011. Two joint calls for projects have been run with the NRF so far: the first focusing on children and youth in 2012 and the second on mineral resources and material substitution as part of the MISU Academy Programme in 2015.

Research cooperation with Africa, not on behalf of Africa

The EU, Finland and African countries have all identified equal partnership as one of their priorities. The Academy of Finland participated in the EU’s ERAfrica network, which was funded by the European Commission as part of its 7th Framework Programme and tasked with promoting research cooperation between Europe and Africa. ERAfrica redefined the nature of EU–Africa research interaction: for the first time, African countries engaged as equals with their European counterparts in design, management and financing alike.

This new model of collaboration is now being expanded to the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme through a network called LEAP-Agri. LEAP-Agri is a joint Europe–Africa Research and Innovation (R&I) initiative related to Food and Nutrition Security and Sustainable Agriculture (FNSSA). The Academy of Finland is one of the 30 African and European partners that make up the network.

The latest step towards a deeper relationship between the EU and Africa is a network called LEAP-RE (Long-Term Joint EU–AU Research and Innovation Partnership on Renewable Energy), which seeks to increase investment in renewable energy innovation, research, human and institutional capacity. The Academy of Finland also participates in this network, which is currently gearing up to launch a call for research projects in 2021.

The Academy’s other partnerships include the EDCTP (European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership), which promotes cooperation between sub-Saharan African countries and the European Union. The EDCTP primarily funds clinical research into drugs, vaccines, microbicides and diagnostics for the detection, treatment and prevention of poverty-related infectious diseases.

Finnish–African research cooperation from anthropology to environmental sciences

Based on a quick study of our statistics, the Academy of Finland contributed a total of approximately 24 million euros towards a total of 74 projects that involved cooperation with Africa between 2011 and 2019. Most of the funding was channelled to the recipients through R&D initiatives co-financed by the Academy and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (35 projects). A total of nine projects were financed through the bilateral joint calls of the Academy and the South African NRF, and eight projects were financed through multilateral EU–Africa co-funding networks.

The African partners involved in the projects were most commonly from South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda. All in all, the funded project teams included researchers from 22 different African countries.

The range of disciplines explored in the course of the projects was also impressive: the most popular disciplines were development studies, anthropology and ethnology, microbiology, social sciences and agricultural sciences. The financed projects also included studies in environmental science, geoscience, food sciences, clinical medicine, education sciences and historical research.

Research partnerships are the best form of development aid – and potentially a gateway to commercial ventures

All strategies involving Africa need to be based on the understanding that there is no single Africa. Africa is a culturally and economically diverse continent consisting of more than 50 countries. Finnish researchers have contacts in a wide range of disciplines all over Africa. These contacts could play a vital role in deepening Finland’s relationships with African countries.

Finnish businesses are being urged to invest in Africa, but success requires mutual trust between these businesses and their African partners and an understanding of African cultures and markets. Research partnerships can also act as a gateway to commercial ventures. More networking and deeper cooperation between contacts based in Africa and Finns with an interest in the African market are needed to make this happen. Consulting with and involving Finland’s African community and especially alumni of Finnish universities in these partnerships is also important.

Research partnerships are the best form of development aid. To quote economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, who won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, “all development is ultimately about expanding human potential and enlarging human freedom”. And nothing expands human potential better than research and scientific knowledge.

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