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Highlights from NEF-GG 2020: Day Two

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The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) has hosted the first-ever virtual edition of the Next Einstein Forum Global Gathering (NEF-GG), Africa’s largest scientific gathering. Organized against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, under the theme “Building Africa’s resilience through education, research and innovation”, this year’s 3-day event is a shift from the norm as it is taking place through the Airmeet video conferencing platform.

 Prof Jacques Marescaux, President, IRCAD France led the first session of the day titled “Imaging, Robotics & AI’: How Mathematics are inventing the Future of Surgery, a new Hope for Africa.” During his presentation, he started by creating a scene for the concept of augmented surgery through a step by step explanation of a liver registration dynamic MRI. He also shared a video of a 2001 tele-surgical operation he and his team carried out on a patient in Strasbourg, France all the way from New York.

The second phase of his session covered the role of science in integrating robotics and long distance surgery. For this, Prof Marescaux explained the process of augmenting the brain of the surgeon, the use of augmented hands and predictive algorithms for understanding the modification for the placement of organs during surgery. He concluded by emphasizing the importance of robotic training platforms, special alarm features and a few words of advice based on his recent observations.

“I was very impressed with the progress in Africa. I also believe that everything we do here can be duplicated – it’s software so it’s not very expensive. With internet penetration across Africa, I would encourage the creation of teams dedicated to imagery because that is the most crucial aspect of reinventing surgery,” he said.

The next session on “The state of Africa on digitalization, skills development and infrastructure” featured an overview of the data revolution in Africa, particularly in light of the pandemic. The speakers, who represented various sectors across the economy shared some insight based on their unique experiences so far. Ben Roberts, Group Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Liquid Telecom started by pointing out that barely a few weeks into the pandemic, offices had to move online. “Internet traffic started being from home and not offices. However, education saw the largest shift, particularly children since they had to keep learning. At Liquid Telecom, we provided the internet, worked with computer teachers and pursued partnerships to empower schools with digital tools”. Meanwhile, Dr Kommy Weldemariam, Head, Scientific & Technical Unit IBM-Research (IBM Africa) stressed the need to consider both cognitive and affective processes of learning. There was also a brief discussion around the efficiency of IOT devices and why African governments need to catch up on digital identity.

In relation to skills development within the agricultural sector, Eliane Ubalijoro, Professor of Practice for Public-Private Sector, McGill University spoke on the importance of accelerating precision farming. According to her, digitization is important across production, infrastructure, and food systems or policies that support agriculture. She also believes that through digitization, more youth will finally delve into agriculture as a career path. Annabel Schiff, Director, Caribou Digital concluded, listing some of the ways that organizations can better handle the competition among businesses – especially those who rely on face to face interaction.

Shortly after this panel came the first set of breakout sessions. The first, “COVID-19 innovations from Africa – highlighting entrepreneurs & researchers” featured a discussion around inspiring innovations designed to address various needs engendered by the COVID-19 era. Foster Ofosu, Knowledge, Innovation and Capacity Development Specialist at AfDB was at the forefront of the ideation stage for many innovators and shared his experience. “During the pandemic I partnered with some reputable organizations to provide masterclasses and training with other innovators in over 20 countries. The most surprising fact was that after putting out a call for innovators, we got 250 applicants who were already at different stages of creation. Technology made that possible,” he said. Daniel Ndima, Founding CEO, CapeBio also added the importance of establishing what it takes to shape a market to create inventions that Africa truly needs. According to him, this includes infrastructure and building on the pillars of open science. During the last phase of the session, the speakers concluded by sharing their thoughts on scientists seeking support to work on their projects, alongside the importance of intellectual property.

Meanwhile, during the session on “Tapping into the virtual workforce to stimulate youth transition to employment”, the panel explored the opportunities which have emerged from this pandemic, identifying capacity and skill gaps needed to facilitate transition to employment. According to Sylvia Kunkyebe, Lead, Transitions, Mastercard Foundation, based on the experiences of her organization, a lot still needs to be done in terms of introducing more digital skills alongside policies that facilitate acquisition. She also explained how working remotely has helped to promote inclusion and diversity, and as such, employers will need to be mindful of roles created to ensure it accommodates every talent. Dr Judene Pretti, Director of Work-Learn Institute, University of Waterloo, Canada shared some data from research across three studies. These include onboarding tactics for remote work terms, examining the work of remote co-op students and factors affecting students’ successful transition to remote work.

The NEF Fellows Spotlight Session was also set aside to showcase the work of two sets of fellows across health, research and academia. They include Dyllon Garth Randall, Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town; Jesse Gitaka, Medicine, Mount Kenya University; Ouma Cecil, Physics, North-West University, Agnes Kiragga, Biostatistics, Makerere University; Marian Asantewah Nkansah, Associate Professor Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology; Abdeslam Badre, Professor Mohammed V University of Rabat; Eucharia Oluchi Nwaichi, Ag. Director, Exchange and Linkage Programmes Unit, University of Port Harcourt; Samson Rwahwire, Director of Graduate Studies, Research & Innovation, Busitema University and Blessing Mbaebie-Oyedemi, Research, Lecturer and Entrepreneurship Lead, Michael Okpara University of Agriculture Umudike.

One of the last two breakout sessions focused on “The role of data governance in the management of COVID-19 spread”. Jules Brice Tchatchueng Mbougu, Senior Researcher, Centre Pasteur started by explaining the challenges associated with data sharing, harmonization, integration and security. He also explained the option of ensuring data collection is anonymized or voluntary. Devangana Khokhar, Lead Data Scientist, ThoughtWorks added the need to factor in repercussions at the designing stage of contact tracing apps. “For instance, if the app is meant to capture data around COVID-19, will it eventually be accessible years after the pandemic? What harm could people do with such data and will it be accessible to all?” she asked. The panel concluded by establishing the need for strong regulations on data privacy alongside innovative ways to ensure transparency.

The final session was on the topic of “Addressing misinformation on research outcomes regarding infection projections and control”. While the world predicted that the pandemic would severely hit Africa, there was clearly a gap, particularly in terms of misinformation and the lack of well-documented data on disease spread and control. Dr Samuel Fosu Gyasi, Head of Basic and Applied Biology, University of Energy and Natural Resources confirmed this. “Sadly in Africa, many still thought the pandemic was a curse and we saw several posts including certain propaganda,” he said. However, according to Dr Betty Kivumbi, Senior Lecturer, Department of Mathematics, Makerere University, Uganda the pandemic birthed several projects in Uganda that focused on using a mathematical model to determine projections about COVID-19. She also believes that while data may not be as organized, it is available and scientists need to take charge in order to prepare for future shocks. In conclusion, the panelists encouraged scientists in Africa to liaise with governments and private individuals to secure the funding required for projects like vaccine development. Dr Samuel Fosu Gyasi cited how Ghana was able to stay ahead in the fight against COVID-19 by investing heavily in diagnostics.

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