At the entrance to the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST), near Arusha city, stands two statues of Africa’s foremost leaders — Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Mzee Nelson Mandela.
The concrete plaques have inscriptions of words of wisdom from the two statesmen. That of Mandela, who passed away on Thursday last week, is about freedom.
His conviction is that education is the cornerstone for the liberation of Africans from poverty and underdevelopment. Therefore, scientific knowledge would spur economic growth.
The icon of anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa must have realised how Africa was lagging behind because of low capacity in science and technology.
The late Mzee Mandela, or as he is affectionately called in his home land Tata Madiba, served only one five-year term as the president of Africa’s economic powerhouse, 1994 – 1999.
During his presidency he happened to meet the World Bank president then, James Wolfensohn, an Australian-born US citizen and discussed how the Bretton Woods institutions can help tackle underdevelopment in Africa.
They concurred, on a suggestion by Mandela, that Africa would have to invest heavily in science and technology in order to spur economic growth. That would be through building capacity of experts through training.
It was suggested, therefore, that a network of pan African institutes of science and technology be established across the continent to realise the dream. One of them is the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology at Tengeru.
These institutions, which are the proud brainchild of Nelson Mandela, envision training and developing the next generation of African scientists and engineers with a view to impacting profoundly on the continent’s development through the application of science, engineering and technology (SET).
The Arusha based NM-AIST is, therefore, being developed to become a world-class research intensive training institution mainly for postgraduates and post-docs in science, engineering and technology (SET) related fields.
Initially the fields of study covered by NM-AIST, taking advantage of the immense bio-diversity in countries forming its catchment area, will be life sciences and bio-engineering.
Others will be mathematics, computational and communication science and engineering; water resources and environmental science and engineering; materials science and engineering and; sustainable energy science and engineering.
Efforts to kick start the establishment of the Arusha campus of the university network took off in 2007 with a visit to Arusha by former Mozambican president Joachim Chissano who headed a team of high profile leaders.
Mr Chissano made the first revelation of the project and said Arusha has been chosen to be one of the centres of the network and that the campus at Tengeru would serve the eastern part of Africa.
The award-winning former Mozambican leader in his press briefing did not hide the fact that underdevelopment in Africa had weighed heavily on lack of skills and expertise and that the initiative was aimed to address the shortcoming. The process to establish the institute was not an easy task. It involved consultations between the Tanzania government and regional bodies such as the African Union (AU), academic institutions abroad and development partners.
Finally the project took off with the massive rehabilitation of the former premises of the Centre for Agricultural Mechanisation and Rural Technology (Camartec) to NM-AIST.
Officially, the college was inaugurated on November 2, last year by President Jakaya Kikwete and Tanzania government alone is reported to have injected more than $60 million (Sh90 billion).
Mandela is seen as the political figure who has given the initiative the much needed push.
Prof Burton Mwamwila, the vice chancellor of NM-AIST, was one of the many academicians associated with the network of science and technology colleges and grieved the passing of Africa’s great leader.
He said in a text to The Citizen on Saturday that Mzee Mandela would be much remembered for having Africa’s dream to promote STI (science, technology and innovation).
NM-AIST, he added, aims to become a world-class institution of higher learning dedicated to the pursuit and promotion of excellence in science and engineering, and their applications for economic growth and sustainable development in Africa.
Prof Calestous Juma, a Kenya-born scientist at the Harvard University in the United States says Africa’s full liberation requires strong science and technology institutes – something Nelson Mandela knew very well.
“What is less well known is that the struggle for political freedom was closely associated with the desire to develop scientific and technological capacity,” said Prof Juma during his recent visit in Arusha. The Harvard scholar argued that the dreaded apartheid in South Africa for which the late Mandela sacrificed his life to fight against did not just separate races.
Mandela, he noted, understood that exclusion from education was a major limiting factor to development. He said education was “the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world”.
According to Prof Juma, himself one of the distinguished science and technology scholars in Africa, two NM-AISTs have already been established — in Tanzania and Nigeria — and a third is planned in Burkina Faso.
“Mandela will be remembered as one of the greatest leaders of all time. The best way is to live up to his loftiest aspirations for Africa — to give future generations science and technology education for expansion of their economic opportunity,” he said.
By Zephania Ubwani, The Citizen Bureau Chief