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Blog Post

Celebrating New African Scientific Leadership - Welcome Grand Challenges Africa

  • Trevor Mundel, Sep 18, 2015

My work in research and development has taken me many places - from South Africa, where I grew up, to Seattle and way beyond, and from the private sector to one of the largest nonprofits on the planet. Throughout this journey, I have found this constant: innovation is one of our most powerful tools to transform lives.

Investments in science, technology and entrepreneurship have enabled many of today's global health and development successes, including an astounding reduction in child mortality and a broadening of access to clean water and sanitation. They have helped to create jobs and wealth, especially for young people. And they have put us on a path toward a life of dignity for all.

This is a watershed year in international development. We face a moment of transition from the Millennium Development Goals to a new global framework for sustainable development. The ambitious targets to be rolled out in New York later this month are achievable – but only if we take advantage of the tenacity and ingenuity of the world's growing community of innovators.

Local leadership is crucial in this effort. No one is better positioned to tackle a challenge than the people whose lives have been affected. The Gates Foundation's approach to Africa is built on this premise. And it's what makes me so optimistic about last week's launch of Grand Challenges Africa.

The launch of Grand Challenges Africa represents a promising new effort by African leaders to build local scientific capacity and shape the continent's R&D agenda. It owes its existence to the leadership of local institutions: the New Partnership for Africa's Development, a strategic framework for pan-African socio-economic development charged by African health ministers with the development of a new research agenda, and the African Academy of Sciences, where Grand Challenges Africa will be housed. It will be led within AAS by a new innovation platform, the Alliance for Accelerating the Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), which will oversee a variety of programs supported by the Wellcome Trust, the U.K.'s Department for International Development and others.

Grand Challenges Africa will build on a strong foundation of Grand Challenges investments on the continent over the past several years. Between the Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada and the U.S. Agency for International Development, several hundred African innovators have already received grants and are doing tremendous work developing low-cost, locally appropriate solutions to problems posed by poor sanitation, malaria and many other challenges.

Early next year, AESA will convene these grantees to discuss lessons learned and get their input on what Grand Challenges Africa should prioritize. These grantees have already shown themselves to be creative, powerful advocates for the future of African science, and I look forward to hearing their recommendations.

In the long run, based on this gathering as well as ongoing discussions with Grand Challenges partners and African stakeholders, AESA will develop, launch and manage challenges and requests for proposals to address some of the biggest challenges that are preventing African countries from reaching the sustainable development goals.

This task will be new for AESA, but it's not new to Grand Challenges. In the past few years, the foundation has been fortunate to partner with Brazil, India and South Africa to establish country-led Grand Challenges programs. These countries have applied the Grand Challenges model to their national development priorities: pre-term birth in Brazil and South Africa, sanitation in India. Their programs, along with similar ones in Thailand, Israel, Peru, Japan and elsewhere, will provide models and potential partners for Grand Challenges Africa.

As these programs grow and begin to collaborate more regularly, momentum will grow for the creation of a reciprocal support network that will help set an innovation agenda for the Global South and perhaps make it easier for domestically sourced innovations to spread worldwide.

To achieve transformational change, African scientists and governments must shape the continent's R&D agenda. AESA and Grand Challenges Africa are important steps in that direction, and welcome signs of a new era of African scientific leadership.

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