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Bai Chunli: Rwanda is an inspiration

Bai Chunli: Rwanda is an inspiration

In his remarks at the opening ceremony of the 27th TWAS General Meeting in Rwanda, TWAS President Bai Chunli says that the small African nation has addresed its challenges by investing in science and education.

Your Excellency, President Paul Kagame,

Esteemed Minister of Education, Dr Papias Malimba Musafiri,

Honourable ministers from Uganda and Tanzania,

Distinguished representatives of the Government of Italy and from UNESCO;

Respected colleagues,

Dear ladies and gentlemen,

It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to the 27th TWAS General Meeting in Kigali, Rwanda. Convening in this nation marks a profound occasion for TWAS, and we are honoured and humbled by the generosity and warm welcome shown to us by the President's Office, the Ministry of Education, and indeed, so many people who have had a part in organising this meeting.

I say it is a profound occasion: Twenty-two years ago, in 1994, genocide against the Tutsi people left perhaps a million Rwandans dead. The nation was shattered. So, too, were its institutions of science and education. Schools were badly damaged. Equipment was destroyed. Teachers and professors were forced to flee, and many were killed.

Our meeting this week in Kigali is a testament to the vision of President Kagame and to the energy of thousands of people who have been working to rebuild the country. It is a testament to the resilience of the Rwandan people.

Throughout the history of TWAS, we have been committed to science for sustainable development. We know that science and technology help developing countries to address human challenges and build more prosperous communities.

Rarely in history has science been summoned to address such challenges as Rwanda has faced. And yet, here we see a nation that embodies the TWAS ideal: It invests in science and science education. It is building South-South and South-North partnerships. It knows the importance of basic science, but it uses applied science to meet human needs and drive economic growth.

Now we are very pleased that Rwanda is establishing its own academy of science. This will be vitally important in setting standards of research excellence, supporting young scientists, and connecting Rwanda to global science networks.

Rwanda continues to face challenges – many of us in this room know similar challenges in our own countries. But Rwanda has become a beacon of hope in Africa, and its sustained dedication to science, technology, conservation and innovation should be known throughout the world.

TWAS last met in Africa in 2009 – in Durban, South Africa. The years since have been a time of growth and progress. A time of optimism, a time of excitement. Clearly, Africa is rich in resources, and rich in potential.

African farmers and researchers are pioneering new methods of farming and food production. Africans are sending satellites into orbit. The Square Kilometre Array, being built in South Africa, will have influence on science and engineering across much of the continent. Increasingly, African research institutions and policymakers are focused on the potential of the Big Data revolution.

African women are providing bold new leadership in research. School enrolment is soaring, and many nations are investing in new universities.

Cell phones in Africa are putting technology – and knowledge – in the hands of the people. Nearly 400 million Africans are cell phone subscribers. In Nigeria and South Africa, the rate of cell phone ownership is the same as in the United States. Today, just over 20 percent of Africans have mobile broadband connections – by 2020, that number will approach 60 percent. The phones are providing direct human benefit in health care, agriculture and other fields.

All of these developments are cause for optimism. But we must keep in mind: Significant needs remain. Some estimates say that, over the coming decades, Africa will need 1 million new scientists, engineers and technicians. They will be needed to research clean energy and  health care. To address climate change and protect ecosystems. To build safe buildings and strong bridges.

And to teach and train new generations of scientists and engineers.

This is a hard, certain fact: For Africa to grow and prosper tomorrow, Africa's children and young people must grow and prosper today. They must have schools, and teachers, and mentors.

We will need strong educational systems to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

But UNESCO recently reported that to achieve universal primary and secondary school enrollment, the world will need nearly 69 million new teachers. The challenge is acute in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 70 percent of countries do not have enough teachers for primary school, and 90 percent lack teachers for secondary school.

Education is a challenge here, too, but Rwanda is achieving success that should be studied throughout the developing world.

It has the highest rate of primary school enrollment in Africa – just a few points shy of 100 percent.

At the time of the genocide, it had perhaps 50,000 students in secondary school. Today, that number has grown ten-fold. And sciences are by far the most popular field of study.

Before the genocide there were about 3,000 Rwandans enrolled in universities. In 2015, that number passed 86,000.

Carnegie Mellon University, a highly respected institution in the United States, has opened a master's degree programme in Rwanda focused on science for Information and Communication Technology. 

Our colleagues and friends at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, have opened a UNESCO Category 2 institute in Kigali – the East African Institute of Fundamental Research. 

China has long worked with Rwanda on agricultural training. And this summer, the Chinese Academy of Sciences met with the Ministry of Education and others in Rwanda about working together to build Rwanda's capacity in water resources management. China has long worked with Rwanda on agricultural training.  A seminar between scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Rwanda scientists are to be launched in these few days, focusing on sustainable environment and natural resources management. Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography CAS and the University of Lay Adventists of Kigali (UNILAK) are jointly setting up a “East Africa Research Centre for Natural Resources and Environment”.

These projects remind us that in Rwanda, and in Africa, partnerships are essential for progress – both South-North and South-South partnerships.

Educating and training young scientists, building global science networks – these are areas of strength for TWAS and its partner organisations.

Globally, TWAS has nearly 1,200 members – about 100 in sub-Saharan Africa. We have close partnerships with the Academy of Science of South Africa, the African Academy of Sciences, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, among others.

We offer fellowships that fully fund PhD studies and postdoctoral research at major science institutions in the South. TWAS and the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World currently have more than 1,000 PhD students studying under our programmes – many of them from Africa.

Our networks cover the globe. The government of Italy, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences – these and other partners have provided support for our work across many years.

Our new TWAS Young Affiliates Network – backed by Lenovo – will assure that the voices of promising African scientists will be heard.

Since the Academy's earliest days, TWAS has been a leading advocate for science in sub-Saharan Africa. At this meeting, we celebrate that history and the successes we have accomplished together. But we also come here to consider the work ahead. There is so much more to do in Rwanda, and in Africa, and throughout the developing world.

Sometimes it seems like a long road to achieving our goals. Some might get discouraged. But in nations such as India, Brazil, Kuwait and China, we see the benefits that result over time when countries make a sustained investment.

This is why sub-Saharan Africa and other small developing nations look to Rwanda for leadership and inspiration. President Kagame knows the importance of investment, partnerships and long-term commitment. Rwanda knows that young people are the key to future progress – and we are pleased to see so many young Rwandans joining us for this meeting.

Abdus Salam, the founder of TWAS, was also deeply committed to nurturing young scientists. In 1979, just a few years before TWAS was born, Salam won the Nobel Prize in physics. In a brief speech at the Nobel banquet, he said:

"Let us strive to provide equal opportunities to all so that they can engage in the creation of physics and science for the benefit of all mankind."

November 21 – next Monday – marks the 20th anniversary of Salam's death. I am certain that he would approve of our work here in Kigali. He would be proud of Rwanda, and proud of TWAS's role in African progress. He would be proud of the many nations that are advancing science and education for a more prosperous and peaceful world.

President Kagame, dear colleagues from Rwanda and around the world – thank you very much.