• 16.05.2019
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Chinese investments fuels African science

Two-Way Trade
Image: Source: UNComtrade/Johns Hopkins China-Africa Research Initiative
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Two-Way Trade
Two-Way Trade (Image: Source: UNComtrade/Johns Hopkins China-Africa Research Initiative)

Africa has emerged as a major partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and that is paying dividends for science. So far, 39 African countries and the African Union Commission have signed BRI cooperation agreements, with others expected to follow.

In the final instalment of Nature's five-part special on how the BRI is remaking the world, explore how China is fuelling science in Africa.

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Although imagined before the BRI, the Sino-Africa centre has become a crucial part of the project’s scientific investments on the continent. As the first research centre between the China Academy of Science and an African country, it will form the headquarters for a handful of similar institutions sprouting up across the continent, from Madagascar to Guinea. Plans call for these centres to explore flora, fauna and biodiversity protection.

China’s assistance is also reflected in education there, particularly in the sciences. China hosted nearly 62,000 African university and postgraduate students in 2016, second only to France at 103,000, according to the most recent figures available from the Chinese Ministry of Education and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The Chinese government also offered 8,470 scholarships to African students in 2015, says Rui Yang, associate dean of international education at the University of Hong Kong.

China’s support for African postgraduate and postdoctoral students is unprecedented, says Mohamed Hassan, president of the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) in Trieste, Italy, and a Sudanese mathematician.

“When it comes to training a new generation of African scholars, [the Chinese] are doing a marvellous job,” Hassan told Nature. “They are doing better than any other country for Africa.”

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China has also been focusing on higher education in Africa. The Chinese Language Council, or Hanban, has established 59 Confucius Institutes there to spread the teaching of Chinese language and culture. China ranks highly in the number of cultural institutions it has in Africa — second only to France, which has 115 institutes. And several African countries, including South Africa, Uganda and Kenya have started to add Mandarin to secondary-school programmes.

Researchers say that many African countries would not be able to achieve as much as they do in science and technology without help from China. That’s clear in the continent’s space race. China’s space agency is providing $6 million to help Ethiopia launch its first satellite later this year, which will provide scientific data on climate and weather-related phenomena.

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Some Westerners have questioned the motives behind such investments, but Gituru, who proudly displays a photograph of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong on his desk, says that any responsible power has the duty to provide help, especially scientific support, not just to its people but to the global community.

“Global challenges — those that face humankind,” he says, “really have no boundaries.”

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