by John M. Malin, Ph. D.
International Activities Administrator
American Chemical Society
Chemistry and Society in Africa
In his discussion of chemistry and society,
Prof. S. O. Wandiga noted that the quality of chemistry in Africa
is only as good as the chemists practicing the discipline and the
support given to them by society. Chemistry, he said, has been practiced
in Africa for a very long time, as can be deduced from ancient stories
of wars fought and diseases cured. The old practice of Chemistry was
limited, however, to the satisfaction of individual needs, the defeat
of an enemy or performance of cultural rites. The practice of chemistry
for commercial purposes is a relatively new phenomenon on the African
Unlike the past when the art of chemistry
was conferred through tutelage by magicians or by divine appointment,
the African chemist nowadays is most likely a graduate of a university
in Europe, North America, Japan, China or Africa. He or she is well-versed
in conceptual theories and skills and is at ease talking about principles
of chemistry or applying cutting edge analytical techniques.
Why, then does the continent lag behind
in development of the chemical industry? Prof. Wandiga suggested the
challenges are based in the availability of resources, the knowledge
and technical base for the propagation of the industry, market forces,
government policy, and general public support for the discipline.
I. The resource base
1) Human resources: Every African country has today a critical mass of
well-trained and qualified chemists and chemical engineers. Unfortunately,
many of the best brains are leaving the continent because they cannot
find employment of their choice, or because they lack modern equipment.
At the same time, a new crop of chemistry practitioners from the
Asian continent is finding opportunities to establish factories
in Africa for solvent distillation, emulsion preparation, synthetic
fiber fabrication, plastics production, and metals refinement. Prof.
Wandiga offered his first recommendation: "We must look
afresh at the training of chemists in Africa. We need to include
entrepreneurial courses in the syllabus, develop the instinct to
take risks, and ensure that African graduates are enabled educationally
to initiate industrial projects of their own."
2) The availability of raw materials. Commonly, raw materials are widespread within the
African continent, and some countries are blessed with great abundance
of resources like oil, minerals or natural products. Unfortunately,
the exploitation of such natural resources has rarely benefited
the citizens. In most cases, raw materials are extracted and exported
unprocessed, while in other cases selfishness based on insecurity
among nations has prevented countries from sharing, developing and
exploiting national resources together with their neighbors. African
resources have continually been exploited by foreigners. Africa
therefore needs to develop mutual trust among nations so that available
resources can be used to benefit Africans. As long as greed and
self-interest prevail over the common good of society, African resources
will never be developed by Africans. Cooperation within and among
states is essential for development of the chemical discipline.
Africa must strive to encourage cooperation in knowledge and technology
sharing. As a start, we need to establish, through market forces,
industries for partial refinement of available raw materials in
order to create added value for our products.
II. The knowledge and technology base
The African continent now has many knowledgeable
chemists, as was demonstrated at the recently concluded Seventh
International Chemistry Congress in Africa, but unfortunately
much of those persons' knowledge is wasted. The majority of talented
scientists in Africa are subject to extreme economic hardships, leading
to their own preoccupation with survival. Restoration of dignity
and self-respect to African scientists will release an enormous reservoir
of knowledge and ability.
This is the era of computer technology.
Development of information and communication technology (ICT) has
greatly reduced the barriers to far-away knowledge for persons conversant
with ICT. But, a lack of access to computers in Africa is resulting
in a failure to develop computer skills. Certainly training in the
use of ICTs is a must for every chemist on the African continent.
Public domain knowledge and technology for chemical processes are
available through information and communication technology for the
exploitation and development of Africa's resources. More training
is needed in tapping and utilizing such knowledge and technology.
III. Market forces
Prof. Wandiga informed the group that, although
the total population of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, is near 75 million,
the per capita income is only $200 - $300. The buying power of African
citizens is currently too small to sustain a dedicated domestic chemical
industry. A second strong force arises from the current economic situation
that compels African nations to export their resources as raw materials.
Compounding these are weak marketing networks for African products.
Under the circumstances, which include falling commodity prices, inflation
of local currency and few markets for African products, chemical research
is not an economically important activity. As long as these current
forces are dominant, Africa will not develop a chemical industry.
As a start, African countries must break the barriers that exist
between states on the continent. Africa further needs to discard the
concept that Africans cannot process their own raw material for competitive
global trade. Lastly, Africa must redouble its efforts to train its
youth to market African products and to use the latest ICT technology.
IV. Enabling Policies
Dr. Wandiga noted that the African policy-making
community and national leaders must understand that they need the
discipline of Chemistry if they are to succeed as rulers. Moreover,
African nations, as in all nations, need to promote the basic principles
of quality of life, democracy, and the dignity of and respect for
human life. Only through such policies can the majority of citizens
excel by applying their intellect, knowledge, and technological skills.
There must be a high priority policy to develop and enable the
chemical industry. Without direct government support for industry,
little can be achieved. Dr. Wandiga recommended that governments set
up priority projects for development of chemical research capability,
with concomitant incentives for industrial development. These new
progressive policies can only emerge, he noted, if Africans at both
local and international levels accept the principle that it is essential
for Africa to trade in finished products. Africa must also implore
its brothers in developed countries to stop looking at Africa as a
supplier of unfinished, unprocessed raw materials for their industry.
V. General Public Support
Prof. Wandiga expressed the opinion that
the African public is very supportive of the chemical industry, provided
the industry continues to supply consumer goods and provide jobs.
As public awareness increases, it is essential that industry does
not negate the public perceptions through use of non-"green"
chemistry processes. Given the high unemployment rate on the continent,
the industry will find ready support if it promotes quality of life
through employment and responsible care for its products. Ethical
considerations by the industry need to play a leading role in its
promotion. At all times one should remember that the African continent
is ecologically fragile. Preservation of the environment for future
generations is part and parcel of the promotion of the chemical industry
on the continent. For the industry to continue to enjoy public support,
it must regulate itself and it must take the lead in conservation
Back to Summary
News and Notices - Symposia/
Conferences - IUPAC Organizations
Recommendations - Divisions
Committees - Publications
- Links - IUPAC Affiliates
Page last modified 15 December 1998.
Copyright © 1997, 98 International Union of Pure and Applied