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So many of us who care about sustainable development and the livelihood of local people do so for deeply personal reasons.
I grew up in Cameroon, a country of enchanting beauty and rich biodiversity, but plagued by poor governance, environmental destruction, and poverty. As a child, like we see with most children in sub-Saharan Africa today, I regularly suffered from malaria. To this day, more than one million people die from malaria every year, mostly children under the age of five, with 90 percent occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.
When I was 18, I left Cameroon in search of better educational opportunities. At the time, there was just one university in Cameroon, but Nigeria next door offered some opportunities for Cameroonians of English instruction to be trained in various fields. So I moved there, but practicing my trade, upon graduation as an ecologist in Nigeria, was an even bigger challenge. So I left the continent when I was offered a scholarship to Boston University for my PhD.
It is disheartening to see that, with all our challenges, with all the talents, with all the skills we have in Africa as a continent, we tend to solve our problems by parachuting in experts from the West for short stays, exporting the best and brightest out of Africa, and treating Africa as a continent in perpetual need of handouts.
After my training at Boston University, I joined a research team at the University of California’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability because of its reputation for groundbreaking research and the development of policies and programs that save the lives of millions of people the world over, including in the developing world. And it has been shown that for every skilled African that returns home, nine new jobs are created in the formal and informal sectors. So as part of our program, therefore, to build a sustainable Africa together, we are leading a multi-initiative to develop the Congo Basin Institute, a permanent base where Africans can work in partnership with international researchers, but working out their own solutions to their own problems. We are using our interdisciplinary approach to show how universities, NGOs and private business can partner in international development. So instead of parachuting in experts from the West for short stays, we are building a permanent presence in Africa, a one-stop shop for logistics, housing and development of collaborative projects between Africans and international researchers
So this has allowed students like Michel to receive high-quality training in Africa. Michel is currently working in our labs to investigate the effects of climate change on insects, for his PhD, and has already secured his post-doctorate fellowship that will enable him to stay on the continent. Also through our local help program, Dr. Gbenga Abiodun, a young Nigerian scientist, can work as a post-doctoral fellow with the Foundation for Professional Development in the University of Western Cape in South Africa and the University of California at the same time, investigating the effects of climate variability and change on malaria transmission in Africa. Indeed, Gbenga is currently developing models that will be used as an early warning system to predict malaria transmission in Africa.
So rather than exporting our best and brightest out of Africa, we are nurturing and supporting local talent in Africa. For example, like me, Dr. Eric Fokam was trained in the US. He returned home to Cameroon, but couldn’t secure the necessary grants, and he found it incredibly challenging to practice and learn the science he knew he could. So when I met Eric, he was on the verge of returning to the US. But we convinced him to start collaborating with the Congo Basin Institute. Today, his lab in Buea has over half a dozen collaborative grants with researchers from the US and Europe supporting 14 graduate students, nine of them women, all carrying out groundbreaking research understanding biodiversity under climate change, human health and nutrition.
So rather than buy into the ideas of Africa taking handouts, we are using our interdisciplinary approach to empower Africans to find their own solutions. Right now, we are working with local communities and students, a US entrepreneur, scientists from the US and Africa to find a way to sustainably grow ebony, the iconic African hardwood. Ebonies, like most African hardwood, are exploited for timber, but we know very little about their ecology, what disperses them, how they survive in our forest 80 to 200 years. This is Arvin, a young PhD student working in our labs, conducting what is turning out to be some cutting-edge tissue culture work. Arvin is holding in her hands the first ebony tree that was produced entirely from tissues. This is unique in Africa. We can now show that you can produce African timber from different plant tissues — leaves, stems, roots — in addition from generating them from seeds, which is a very difficult task.
So other students will take the varieties of ebony which Arvin identifies in our lab, graft them to produce saplings, and work with local communities to co-produce ebony with local fruit tree species in their various farms using our own tree farm approach, whereby we invite all the farmers to choose their own tree species they want in their farms. So in addition to the ebony, the species which the farmers choose themselves will be produced using our modern techniques and incorporated into their land-use systems, so that they start benefiting from these products while waiting for the ebony to mature.
Today we are planting 15,000 ebony trees in Cameroon, and for the first time, ebony won’t be harvested from the middle of a pristine forest. This is the model for our African hardwoods, and we are extending this to include sapele and bubinga, other highly prized hardwoods.
So if these examples existed when I was 18, I would never have left, but because of initiatives by the Congo Basin Institute, I am coming back, but I’m not coming back alone. I’m bringing with me Western scientists, entrepreneurs and students, the best science from the best universities in the world, to work and to live in Africa.
But we all need to scale up this local, powerful and empowering approach. So far we have half a dozen universities and NGOs as partners. We are planning to build a green facility that will expand on our existing laboratory space and add more housing and conference facilities to promote a long-term disciplinary approach. I want it to offer more opportunities to young African scholars, and would scale it up by leveraging the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture’s existing network of 17 research stations across sub-Saharan Africa.
The tables are starting to turn … and I hope they keep turning, to reach several African nations like Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Senegal, among the top fastest growing economies that can attract several opportunities for private-sector investment. We want to give more opportunities to African scholars, and I long to see a day when the most intelligent Africans will stay on this continent and receive high-quality education through initiatives like the Congo Basin Institute, and when that happens, Africa will be on the way to solving Africa’s problems. And in 50 years, I hope someone will be giving a TED Talk on how to stop the brain drain of Westerners leaving your homes to work and live in Africa.