Thierry Zomahoun: Africa is looking for its Einsteins

Creating the next generation of scientists is crucial for Africa’s development

“Africa is at a tipping point, and will become a global player.” That’s according to Thierry Zomahoun, president and CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), who is also a development economist. He has a dream: “To train a critical mass of bright mathematical scientists, who are critical thinkers and problem solvers, and who will address the African development challenges.” In this interview to EuroScientist, this native of Benin explains how he hopes that it will be soon be possible “to train a new generation of African leaders” and “bring more girls and women into science”.

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He is a promoter of the Next Einstein Initiative, proposed by AIMS. The institute has five excellence centres in Tanzania, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa. It currently recruits, at most, 50 people per centre to train them in broadly applicable mathematical skills.

One advantage of mathematics is that it is cheap. And it does not require heavy infrastructure. “A pen and a pencil, and you can do it!” he says. One of the key features of his project is to form partnership with other African centres and centres in Europe and North America. “We cannot reinvent the wheel,” as he puts it. There are various levels of partnerships: with professors coming to Africa, students staying in other centres across the world, and tutors mentoring the students in the course of their studies.
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“80% of African high school students enrol in humanities,” explains Zomahoun, whereas “you need more scientists to raise a continent”. He believes this is partly due to colonial heritage and post-independence responsibility. During colonial era, he tells Euroscientist, most Africans were denied science education. Independent Africa inherited that legacy. In the sixties, African leaders did not think about reshaping the education system. But now Zomahoun claims there is a slow shift, and in a couple of decades things might look different, with many more African “Einsteins” around. “The new generation of scientists we are training challenges the status quo,” he explains proudly.

During his presentation at the recent Falling Walls conference, back in November 2014, he described two African innovative projects that, he thinks, will change Africa and the world.

The first is the Mobile banking system: M-PESA—“M” for “mobile”, and “pesa” is Swahili for “money.” He describes it as “a revolutionary innovation,” that allows the majority of 1 billion people living in Africa who do not hold a bank account to send money to their family with just an text message.

The second project is the famous SKA, Square Kilometre Array radiotelescope, located in Carnarvon, in the desertic Northern Cap region of South Africa. It will be the largest radiotelescope ever built. Thus, it is expected to “draw scientists from around the world,” forming “a vibrant community.” Even if some people might think it is useless for their lives, Zomahoun emphasises that “internet connection will improve 10-fold,” and, among other things, “it will help a lot to advance in geographic information for Africa.”

Featured image credit: Kay Herschelmann

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