This past week, as African and European business leaders came together to discuss international collaboration to strengthen Africa’s economy and build back stronger from COVID-19, it was impossible to overlook the foundational role of skills development for health innovation in Africa.
COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities in the health system and emphasized the need to bolster Africa’s public health capacity and infrastructure, including its drug innovation capabilities. As the world moves towards a post-pandemic phase, and as discussions that took place at the EU-Africa Business Forum and Summit remain fresh in our minds, now is the time for partnerships to increase investments in science, skills development, and infrastructure to provide sustainable and scalable health solutions.
At the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) centre and H3D Foundation, innovation and skills development are the centre of our work. We support partnerships that enable Africa to become more self-reliant and a global player in innovative pharmaceutical R&D.
My experience has taught me that we must proactively seek out, identify, and build on existing entrepreneurial pockets of excellence with established infrastructure and a track record of delivery, leveraging funding and assembling global networks. This approach will provide a far greater absorptive capacity to attract and retain skilled African scientists, including those in the diaspora.
Being a scientist and entrepreneur myself, I firmly believe in the power of science and innovation in transforming lives. Historically, innovations have had an immense impact on our lives, be it through penicillin, vaccines, mapping the human genome or creating jobs. Even in the fight against COVID-19, we were able to develop vaccines in record time because of innovation and significant investments in R&D.
Yet, despite decades of post-independence training of scientists in Africa, it has been unsustainable and compounded by the brain drain, resulting in a critical shortage of skilled talent in health innovation. With 22%  of Africa’s working-age population starting businesses, Africa ranks highest in entrepreneurship in the world, but there is not sufficient investment in nurturing a thriving innovation ecosystem to retain this talent.
We should leverage every opportunity to identify, encourage, and support pioneering young African entrepreneurs in health innovations. They should be provided financial resources and opportunities to develop their business ideas and advance promising solutions to strengthen the health system. This will secure innovative and compelling businesses with the capacity to compete regionally and globally, attract investments, and contribute to job creation (both direct and induced), resulting in economic growth.
To achieve this, we need partnerships and capacity building models that scale through sustained world-class excellence and delivery. In this regard, H3D Foundation has partnered with the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) to strengthen health innovation capacity in Africa and pool resources towards capacity strengthening for discovering and developing lifesaving medicines. Global partnerships such as the EU-Africa Global Health Partnership under the European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) have also been actively supporting R&D and accelerating the clinical evaluation of diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines.
Within the context of drug discovery, the Grand Challenges Africa Drug Discovery Programme, led by H3D in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Medicines for Malaria Venture, and African Academy of Sciences, also aims to expand the drug discovery community across the continent through industry- and academic-led mentorship. Partnership models for skills development are already in place and we can learn from the examples they set.
In 1996, after my doctoral and postdoctoral training abroad, I was motivated to enter the field of health innovation for three reasons. First, I felt duty bound as an African to contribute to finding solutions to the various health challenges on the continent by training and upskilling a generation of African scientists to conduct drug discovery and to build the critical infrastructure and expertise. Second, I wanted to confront afro-pessimism and debunk the myth that Africa is not, and cannot be, a source of health innovation as it relates to the discovery of innovative medicines. Third, I wanted to contribute to a culture of entrepreneurship in science, to create jobs, and inspire young scientists to be entrepreneurs.
Today, my motivations are the same, and it is these motivations that supported our presence at the recent EU-Africa Business Forum and Summit. It is significant that the Health Industries Business Declaration calls for EU-AU private sector engagement to develop and retain a local skilled workforce, especially for young professionals and young women.
As we deliberate on the outcomes of this 7th summit, I call on scientists, innovators, and entrepreneurs to come together to celebrate and amplify our scientific expertise as Africans and seek active solutions that will activate our entrepreneurial spirit and expand partnerships in the local and global scientific community. A health industries skills road map must be a key outcome of the EU-Africa Summit.
The article was written by Professor Kelly Chibale and was published by All Africa here.