South Africa and the whole of Africa are confronted with the urgent challenge of developing our science and technology capabilities so that we are able to respond to the development challenges of the continent.

This is the word from Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology, congratulating the winners of the annual Science Olympiad organised by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA).

“We are keen to see success and the development of scientists in all disciplines – the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Our focus in the Olympiad programme is on expanding quality and success in mathematics, the natural sciences, and the life sciences,” she says.

“We are short of skills and we must fill the gap.”

She stresses that science and technology matter because the world needs to devise new solutions to sustainable development so as to provide food and energy and security to our communities.

“It matters because the world needs you to provide sustainable solutions that will ensure that we save the earth and its resources for future generations,” Pandor says.

“It took 250 000 years of human existence for the living population to reach 1-billion. It took barely 12 years for the world’s population to increase from 6-billion to 7-billion. By 2050, it is estimated that more than 10-billion people will live on our earth.

“This astounding growth in population implies a great deal of work must be done by future researchers and innovators. Current concerns about climate change mean that the old ways of generating energy must give way to the deployment of innovative and environmentally friendly technology solutions.”

Many people in Africa don’t have access to energy, even though we have abundant fossil fuels, she adds. “Future scientists will have to develop new technologies that allow us to use such natural resources in a manner that reduces environmental risk.”

In addition, clean technology solutions can play a role in expanding energy, creating new enterprises and jobs. “Some of the most exciting work is in the area of hydrogen and fuel cell development,” Pandor says. “It’s potentially the clean fuel of the future. We can see promising beginnings of a shift towards a future hydrogen economy. Already some in the private sector are using these innovations for back-up power.

“We have some of the best conditions for solar energy in the world, and sufficient wind-energy potential to respond to our energy needs. Innovators in schools and universities from Guguletu to Mamelodi and Cape Town to Pretoria are working on wind and solar-power projects. We also intend to expand our nuclear energy capacity and need the skills to help us obtain our goals.”

Meanwhile, scientists are doing good work on the area of food security, Pando adds. “Agriprotein Technologies, a technology start-up company, successfully developed and piloted a nutrient recycling technology that converts organic waste to animal feed protein. Here we have millions of rand invested, three production factories in South Africa built, and hundreds of jobs created.”

As a water-scarce country, South Africa needs to invest in water security as well, she says. “Ludwick Marishane knew what it was like when he was growing up in a township in Limpopo and so he dreamed up a type of gel that people can use to clean themselves – without water – when he was a pupil and developed it into an award-winning product when he was a student. He responded to the challenge of how to save water in a water-scarce country.”

Science and technology also have a role to play in the area housing and shelter. “The Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) has a specialist unit that has built a demonstration suburb in Kleinmond in the Western Cape,”
Pandor says. “The CSIR’s principal built-environment researcher, Llewellyn van Wyk, calls these houses the ‘Citi Golf’ of subsidy houses replete with solar heating and built with new building materials.”

The bio-economy also offers great opportunities to address some of our most pressing societal challenges, she adds. “Its value lies not only in reducing the burden of chronic and infectious diseases, but also in waste management, biofuel production and food security. I believe you will assist us in unlocking the massive potential that lies in our natural resources.”