Is Zim’s science drive the cure for Africa’s ills?

ZIMBABWE recently introduced a new policy which will see the government paying school fees for all students who take up science subjects for their A-levels (the last two years of secondary education).

Known as STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the policy is meant to incentivise students to take up science subjects, which are now seen as key to the country’s efforts to industrialise.

The Zimbabwean government, through its minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Jonathan Moyo, has also gone further and said it will not allow students to enroll in tertiary institutions without passing mathematics at ordinary level (the first four years of secondary education).

The government’s thinking is supported by the belief that the world economy is now driven by science and technology. Evidence also abounds that the most valuable companies or economies are those that are driven by technology-based models. The three largest US companies by market cap are all tech: Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft. Add in Amazon and Facebook, and five of the top 10 public companies are tech names.

Apple is the United States’ biggest company by market cap, with a market cap of nearly US$660 billion. Of the top 20 companies in the US by market cap, only ExxonMobil can be said to be a resource-based company. However, a closer look shows it is not based on the primary product, but a secondary product where value addition has taken place.

The above examples indicate it’s no longer about the primary resource you have, but how you deploy the power of technology and tools that makes the biggest difference.

It is against this background that President Robert Mugabe’s government has targeted the development of STEM skills as a key part of Zimbabwe’s long-term human capital objectives. As part of government’s effort to encourage students to take up A-level mathematics, biology and chemistry, government has offered to pay students’ fees.

Trips to Silicon Valley and cash incentives

In addition, the education ministry will run a competition which will see 10 STEM students getting the opportunity to visit Microsoft and other Silicon Valley STEM firms. There are also cash incentives for schools promoting STEM enrolment. The initiative is said to be in line with the country’s new industrialisation thrust.

It can now be questioned whether this is the right way towards a new growth path for African countries that have long depended on volatile primary commodities. Moyo certainly believes so.

“Available evidence supports the view that currently sustainable socio-economic transformation is driven by investing in STEM disciplines,” said Moyo at the launch of STEM.

According to Lee-Roy Chetty, a two-times recipient of the National Research Fund Scholarship, science and technology are the differentiators between countries that are able to tackle poverty effectively by growing and developing their economies, and those that are not.

“The extent to which developing economies emerge as economic powerhouses depends on their ability to grasp and apply insights from science and technology and use them creatively,” said Chetty in an article entitled ‘The Role of Science and Technology in the Developing World in the 21st Century’.

“Less developed countries not only lack skilled labour and capital, but also use these less efficiently,” he said, adding that inputs account for less than half the difference in per capita income across nations – “the rest is due to the inability to adopt and adapt technologies to raise productivity”.

Strive Masiyiwa, the head and founder of Econet Wireless Global, also seems to be in agreement that Africa can revolutionise its economies by going even beyond value addition and beneficiation. “It goes beyond the simplicity of ‘processing’ and so-called ‘beneficiation’. That’s not enough,” said Masiyiwa in one of his educational Facebook posts.

He added that what Africa need is “people with the know-how and vision to transform its minerals into such great innovations and products that we no longer export our raw materials all over the world!”.

He gave examples of countries such as Dubai, Mauritius, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland, to name but a few where wealth creation doesn’t require any raw material endowment.

The Zimbabwean government might not be taking its cue from what Masiyiwa said, but it is encouraging to know that government is prioritising development of skills with the much-needed bias towards science and technology.

An economy not underpinned by exporting raw materials?

Will Zim’s STEM programme help the country develop an economy that is not underpinned solely by the export of raw materials? Is it going to come to a point where its platinum deposits will be developed into catalytic converters, laboratory equipment, electrical contacts and electrodes, platinum resistance thermometers, dentistry equipment, jewellery, anti-cancer drugs, fuel cells, chemicals, glass making equipment, etc before leaving the borders?

Are we going to get to a point where tobacco will only leave African countries when the value of a kilogram is no longer the US$4,50 paid at auction floors, but the US$30 per kg paid for cigarettes?

Analysts said while the move by the Zimbabwean government to recognise the importance of such subjects is noble, more still needs to be done to achieve the intended goals. Some pointed out there is a need to capacitate those who have already graduated with STEM-related subjects at various universities across the country.

“It’s not like Zimbabwe is short of people who have studied such subjects. I am sure our universities are producing thousands of graduates with STEM-related subjects every year.

“What is lacking is the capacity for them to put what they learnt at school into practice. They simply don’t have resources and right now you won’t be surprised to see some of the graduates selling talk time and bottled water in the streets of Harare,” said analyst Jerome Negonde.

As much as STEM is important for the development of the country in its support of industrialisation, there is need to guard against wasting resources on a lost cause. There is need for a holistic approach to make sure that all the students who have been given an opportunity to learn STEM subjects are given enough resources and an enabling economic environment to put theory into practice when they leave school.-fin24

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