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TEDGlobal 2017

Kevin Njabo: How we can stop Africa's scientific brain drain

Filmed:
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How can Africans find solutions to Africa's problems? Conservation biologist Kevin Njabo tells his personal story of how he nearly became part of the group of African scientists who seek an education abroad and never return -- and why he's now building a permanent base on the continent to nurture and support local talent. "I'm not coming back alone. I'm bringing with me Western scientists, entrepreneurs and students," Njabo says. "When that happens, Africa will be on the way to solving Africa's problems."

- Conservation biologist
Kevin Njabo is coordinating the development of UCLA's newly established Congo Basin Institute (CBI) in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Full bio

So many of us who care
about sustainable development
00:12
and the livelihood of local people
00:16
do so for deeply personal reasons.
00:18
I grew up in Cameroon,
00:22
a country of enchanting beauty
and rich biodiversity,
00:23
but plagued by poor governance,
environmental destruction, and poverty.
00:27
As a child, like we see with most children
in sub-Saharan Africa today,
00:32
I regularly suffered from malaria.
00:37
To this day, more than one million people
die from malaria every year,
00:39
mostly children under the age of five,
00:44
with 90 percent occurring
in sub-Saharan Africa.
00:46
When I was 18, I left Cameroon
00:51
in search of better
educational opportunities.
00:54
At the time, there was
just one university in Cameroon,
00:57
but Nigeria next door
offered some opportunities
01:00
for Cameroonians of English instruction
to be trained in various fields.
01:02
So I moved there,
01:07
but practicing my trade,
01:08
upon graduation
as an ecologist in Nigeria,
01:10
was an even bigger challenge.
01:13
So I left the continent
01:14
when I was offered a scholarship
to Boston University for my PhD.
01:16
It is disheartening to see that,
01:23
with all our challenges,
01:24
with all the talents,
01:26
with all the skills we have
in Africa as a continent,
01:28
we tend to solve our problems
01:30
by parachuting in experts
from the West for short stays,
01:33
exporting the best
and brightest out of Africa,
01:36
and treating Africa as a continent
in perpetual need of handouts.
01:40
After my training at Boston University,
01:45
I joined a research team
01:47
at the University of California's
01:48
Institute of the Environment
and Sustainability
01:50
because of its reputation
for groundbreaking research
01:52
and the development
of policies and programs
01:55
that save the lives
of millions of people the world over,
01:57
including in the developing world.
02:00
And it has been shown
02:02
that for every skilled African
that returns home,
02:04
nine new jobs are created
in the formal and informal sectors.
02:06
So as part of our program, therefore,
to build a sustainable Africa together,
02:10
we are leading a multi-initiative
to develop the Congo Basin Institute,
02:14
a permanent base
02:18
where Africans can work in partnership
with international researchers,
02:20
but working out their own solutions
to their own problems.
02:24
We are using our interdisciplinary
approach to show how universities,
02:29
NGOs and private business
02:33
can partner in international development.
02:36
So instead of parachuting in experts
from the West for short stays,
02:39
we are building a permanent
presence in Africa,
02:43
a one-stop shop for logistics, housing
02:46
and development of collaborative projects
02:50
between Africans
and international researchers.
02:52
So this has allowed students like Michel
02:54
to receive high-quality
training in Africa.
02:57
Michel is currently working in our labs
03:00
to investigate the effects
of climate change on insects, for his PhD,
03:03
and has already secured
his post-doctorate fellowship
03:06
that will enable him
to stay on the continent.
03:09
Also through our local help program,
03:12
Dr. Gbenga Abiodun,
a young Nigerian scientist,
03:15
can work as a post-doctoral fellow
03:19
with the Foundation
for Professional Development
03:21
in the University of Western Cape
in South Africa
03:23
and the University of California
at the same time,
03:26
investigating the effects
of climate variability and change
03:28
on malaria transmission in Africa.
03:32
Indeed, Gbenga is currently
developing models
03:34
that will be used
as an early warning system
03:36
to predict malaria transmission in Africa.
03:40
So rather than exporting
our best and brightest out of Africa,
03:43
we are nurturing and supporting
local talent in Africa.
03:47
For example, like me,
03:50
Dr. Eric Fokam was trained in the US.
03:52
He returned home to Cameroon,
but couldn't secure the necessary grants,
03:56
and he found it incredibly challenging
03:59
to practice and learn
the science he knew he could.
04:02
So when I met Eric,
04:06
he was on the verge
of returning to the US.
04:08
But we convinced him
to start collaborating
04:10
with the Congo Basin Institute.
04:13
Today, his lab in Buea
has over half a dozen collaborative grants
04:14
with researchers from the US and Europe
04:19
supporting 14 graduate students,
nine of them women,
04:22
all carrying out groundbreaking research
04:25
understanding biodiversity
under climate change,
04:27
human health and nutrition.
04:30
(Applause)
04:32
So rather than buy into the ideas
of Africa taking handouts,
04:38
we are using our
interdisciplinary approach
04:42
to empower Africans
to find their own solutions.
04:45
Right now, we are working
with local communities and students,
04:48
a US entrepreneur,
04:52
scientists from the US and Africa
04:54
to find a way to sustainably grow ebony,
the iconic African hardwood.
04:57
Ebonies, like most African hardwood,
are exploited for timber,
05:03
but we know very little
about their ecology,
05:07
what disperses them,
05:09
how they survive in our forest
80 to 200 years.
05:11
This is Arvin,
05:16
a young PhD student working in our labs,
05:17
conducting what is turning out to be
some cutting-edge tissue culture work.
05:21
Arvin is holding in her hands
05:25
the first ebony tree that was produced
entirely from tissues.
05:27
This is unique in Africa.
05:31
We can now show that you can
produce African timber
05:33
from different plant tissues --
05:36
leaves, stems, roots --
05:37
in addition from generating
them from seeds,
05:40
which is a very difficult task.
05:42
(Applause)
05:45
So other students will take
the varieties of ebony
05:49
which Arvin identifies in our lab,
05:51
graft them to produce saplings,
05:54
and work with local communities
to co-produce ebony
05:56
with local fruit tree species
in their various farms
05:59
using our own tree farm approach,
06:02
whereby we invite all the farmers
06:04
to choose their own tree species
they want in their farms.
06:06
So in addition to the ebony,
06:10
the species which the farmers
choose themselves
06:12
will be produced
using our modern techniques
06:14
and incorporated into
their land-use systems,
06:16
so that they start benefiting
from these products
06:19
while waiting for the ebony to mature.
06:21
Today we are planting
15,000 ebony trees in Cameroon,
06:24
and for the first time,
06:27
ebony won't be harvested
from the middle of a pristine forest.
06:29
This is the model
for our African hardwoods,
06:32
and we are extending this
to include sapele and bubinga,
06:35
other highly prized hardwoods.
06:38
So if these examples existed
when I was 18,
06:40
I would never have left,
06:45
but because of initiatives
by the Congo Basin Institute,
06:47
I am coming back,
06:50
but I'm not coming back alone.
06:52
I'm bringing with me Western scientists,
06:54
entrepreneurs and students,
06:56
the best science from the best
universities in the world,
06:58
to work and to live in Africa.
07:01
But we all need to scale up this local,
powerful and empowering approach.
07:04
So far we have half a dozen
universities and NGOs as partners.
07:10
We are planning to build
07:15
a green facility that will expand
on our existing laboratory space
07:17
and add more housing
and conference facilities
07:20
to promote a long-term
disciplinary approach.
07:22
I want it to offer more opportunities
to young African scholars,
07:25
and would scale it up by leveraging
07:28
the International Institute
of Tropical Agriculture's existing network
07:31
of 17 research stations
across sub-Saharan Africa.
07:34
The tables are starting to turn ...
07:38
and I hope they keep turning,
07:41
to reach several African nations
07:43
like Côte d'Ivoire, Tanzania and Senegal,
07:45
among the top fastest growing economies
07:49
that can attract several opportunities
for private-sector investment.
07:52
We want to give more opportunities
to African scholars,
07:59
and I long to see a day
08:02
when the most intelligent Africans
will stay on this continent
08:04
and receive high-quality education
08:07
through initiatives
like the Congo Basin Institute,
08:09
and when that happens,
08:12
Africa will be on the way
to solving Africa's problems.
08:13
And in 50 years, I hope
someone will be giving a TED Talk
08:17
on how to stop the brain drain
of Westerners leaving your homes
08:20
to work and live in Africa.
08:24
(Applause)
08:26
Thank you.
08:27
(Applause)
08:28

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About the speaker:

Kevin Njabo - Conservation biologist
Kevin Njabo is coordinating the development of UCLA's newly established Congo Basin Institute (CBI) in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

Why you should listen

Dr. Kevin Yana Njabo is the Associate Director and the Africa Director for the Center for Tropical Research (CTR), a part of the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. He also holds a joint Assistant Professor appointment at both Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. He is responsible for supervising CTR’s research teams in Africa and coordinating the development of UCLA’s newly established Congo Basin Institute (CBI) in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Dr. Njabo also serves as a Visiting Professor at the National University of Rwanda and the Higher Institute of Environmental Sciences, Yaoundé, Cameroon.

His research interests are examining the link between biodiversity and human health where he attempts to address the underlying causes of this emergence and how they relate to changes in biodiversity. His area of research focuses on Africa as a platform for case studies of these relationships with the hope that this work will help develop new interdisciplinary tools and methods to forecast and mitigate risks to biodiversity and health, creating sound strategies to enhance the societal benefits of conserving biodiversity. He serves on several professional bodies including the Board of Governors and Global Vice President of the Society for Conservation Biology; Council Member of the Pan African Ornithological Congress Committee and member of the editorial board for Austin Environmental Sciences, a newly initiated peer-reviewed open access journal with an aim to develop a platform for innovative researchers working in the areas of Environmental Sciences.

More profile about the speaker
Kevin Njabo | Speaker | TED.com