Re-aligning Knowledge Production in Africa for Greater Impact
The continent of Africa brims with vast potential for progress, and as the dynamics of the fourth industrial revolution takes center stage, Africa is confronted with the stark choice of doing business as usual or taking bold steps to harness the opportunities of the revolution.
Knowledge production and utilization has been the key driver of this change. However, the dynamics of its production in Africa are fraught with critical challenges. First and foremost, the enterprise of knowledge production in the continent is an extension of Africa’s long colonial history. Discourse on various aspects of life in Africa is awash with European scholarly narratives that paint a dark and gloomy picture of the continent. The logic is simple: to dominate and exploit a people or race, write their history, paint them black, and get them to believe they are so backward that they need your help.
Not that there are no interests by African academic communities in knowledge production; low investment has driven underground whatever interest African scholars and universities have in producing and disseminating knowledge to inspire change. According to a concept paper for a continental summit on higher education in Africa, less than 0.5 per cent of Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) is invested in research on the continent. The result has been that the continent accounts for a meagre 1.5% of the annual global share of research publications.
Analysts are quick to point out the consequence of a lack of political will, but it goes deeper than that; it illustrates the impact of a historical process which had its origins in the colonial-imperialist expansion and the imposition of its forms of reproducing societies (including mind sets, ideologies and knowledge).
The consequence of this has been all too glaring; the appetite and preference by Africans for Western/American products and value systems as against the continent’s diverse cultural products and offerings. These interests drive and sustain the all too familiar practices that alienate Africa and sustain the domination and exploitation of its resources.
As the talk of an African renaissance gains momentum, it is important to move away from these narratives and generate knowledge relevant to the African experience, history and culture. In so doing, African scholars need to re-live/reinvent the legacy of their forebears. The continent is in every respect the birthplace of learning as it is the cradle of civilization. The world’s first university in Morocco served as the highest center of learning as thousands from different continents flock to Fez for enlightenment. Al-Azhar University in Cairo provided advanced learning that tapped from Egypt’s rich history and opened up vast possibilities for the continent’s growth; all these transformations happened at a time Europe lay in darkness. It had to take the Moors and Berbers of North Africa to light the torch in Europe and open it up to scientific enquiry and social practices which had long been the norm in Africa.
But Africa’s potential for greater knowledge production today transcends long gone historical episodes. Even as it must take a cue or two from its glorious past, there is the compelling need to adapt its scholarship to pioneer new learnings, discoveries and technologies that ground and guide our development paths. The continent’s diverse ethnicities and cultures offer time-tested potential for growth. Regrettably however, knowledge production in these areas is overwhelmingly undertaken by non-Africans, and tends to focus too narrowly on the bad and fringe aspects. Leveraging these cultures for actual growth require a research-based understanding of how contemporary development paradigms can tap into local content.
Undoubtedly, tribal and ethnic societies across Africa have always had inbuilt systems of resilience and transformation, systems that determined how, for instance, food production is organized, how shelters are built, climate change contained, innovations adopted and conflicts resolved. These technologies may well be adopted to address the critical challenges of conflicts, food insecurity, housing, among others. Just how successful this turns out will very much depend on the quality of scholarship that goes into these socio-cultural mechanisms, and, in fact, who carries out the research.
Clearly then, Africa’s development prospects are in many ways connected to a knowledge-based (re)discovery of its unique socio-political and economic structures. This calls for the generation of knowledge that not only seek to bridge the “knowledge divide” or strip it of western epistemes but also anchor it on the continent’s contemporary development challenges. It also calls for knowledge production by Africans for Africa. It is not just helpful, and it never has been, that this task is shouldered not by Africans, but by European scholars.
Much of the progress of developed societies have been achieved on the back of groundbreaking research. To dichotomize knowledge production and development will be to spell doom of human progress. For Africa in particular, the need for knowledge generation (by Africans) is ever more pressing. It is needed, not more by the shelves, libraries and laboratories of African academic communities than it is required to provide innovative and sustainable solutions to the continent’s development challenges.
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