Administering support for Africa’s ‘brain gain’

Dr. Venancio Massingue is Mozambique’s Minister of Science & Technology and a graduate of TU Delft, where he received a PhD in Information & Communication Technology.

Massingue was back in Delft last weekend to attend the inaugural Young Entrepreneurs for Africa (Yefa) event and offer his support for this new entrepreneurial endeavor between TU Delft and Africa.

Once seemingly an ideal candidate to continue Africa’s long, damaging tradition of seeing its best and brightest young minds lost to the ‘brain drain’, Dr. Venancio Massingue instead choose a circuitous route: after completing his PhD studies in Information & Communication Technology Application and Management at TU Delft, he then returned home to achieve professional prominence in Mozambique.
A shining example of what he himself calls Africa’s ‘brain gain’, Massingue, 48, and the father of two children, has held top management positions in both industry and academia. In 1998 he won the Unesco Albert Einstein Medal for Science and Technology, and served as the Vice-Rector of Eduardo Mondlane University (UEM), before ascending to his current ministerial position. He was in Delft last weekend to attend the inaugural event of Yefa (Young Entrepreneurs for Africa), a non-profit organization affiliated with TU Delft that aims to empower young Africans through the development of entrepreneurship and sustainability in Africa.

How would characterize your experience of pursuing a PhD degree at TU Delft? “This was a very interesting time for me, because I’ve always liked to combine studies and work. When I first came to Delft, I had already been working and had bought a car. In coming to Delft I of course thought I was coming to a developed country, so I was quite shocked when I arrived here and was given a bicycle to commute to university and back home on every day. And it was cold! But most importantly I found the educational facilities here to be excellent, and was most impressed by the fact that all the theory I was taught was put into practice. Then I said to myself: “Yes, now I am doing engineering!’”

Are the advantages of studying in the West over Africa so significant?“Frankly, we must be realistic. On the African continent, for historical reasons, we still lack a good educational infrastructure and facilities. Yet because we have good friends in the West, it’s a good idea to take advantage of this and study abroad.” 

What do you say to people who say African countries should dissuade their young people from studying abroad? “My vision is that we must combine both education at home with using the possibilities available for studying abroad. However, there are very important elements that must considered. One is that we, the policymakers, must establish and develop high quality educational infrastructure for research in Africa, which we’re doing. The second issue has to do with the students who are attracted by what they see here in the West and forget they have to return home after their studies. There is this debate that there are no facilities, jobs and amenities to provide an enabling environment in Africa. But they forget that the only reason these facilities exist here in the West is because someone made the effort to create them.”

What other aspects are in play in this process?
“There is a fundamental generation problem, and it’s important to say – ‘I must do something’ – especially taking into account that this is your responsibility as a PhD. Thus, the argument that there are no conditions is irrelevant and shouldn’t arise, because no one will create the conditions for young African graduates to return to. Graduates must put it in their minds that they must be part of the creation of the better conditions. Some of us had the opportunity to pursue a PhD, but my grandmother doesn’t even know how to write, yet she made the effort to get me educated. We must create the conditions.”

Why are your thoughts on the Yefa – Young Entrepreneurs for Africa project?
“The Yefa concept is a very strong one, because it’s about entrepreneurship and young people. It’s about making use of scientists who are highly educated and highly trained, but lack the vital connections back home in Africa to implement what they’ve learnt. It’s important to be able to implement say, after a PhD, what you have learnt, as this will bring about remarkable positive change by linking the realities in the West to the opportunities in Africa.”

How do you see Yefa helping young African entrepreneurs establish themselves in Africa and contribute to the continent’s sustainable development?“First, I believe Yefa should define itself as the instrument for ‘brain gain’. This will help promote the idea of Africans returning home. And a strong emphasis should be put on what I call ‘scientific expeditions’ – generating meaningful ideas that can solve practical problems.”

Many Africans choose not to return home for many reasons. Do you see any real opportunities for young Africans entrepreneurs back in Africa?“If I had this type of reasoning a few years ago, I wouldn’t be here with you now talking about Africa and Mozambique. I’d have said it’s better to stay in Europe. My answer is yes, there are opportunities. But these opportunities start from the interior of every one of us and begin by each of us saying: ‘I want to change something.’”

What problems should young African entrepreneurs expect to encounter when returning home to help bring about these positive changes?“It’s not good to consider them as problems, but rather as challenges, for only then can you convert them to opportunities. If you view problems as problems, then we will have to wait on someone to solve them, but as challenges you will be the first to think of how to address them. I believe there are so many opportunities for implementing our scientific knowledge.”

The state-of-the-art telecommunication and ICT infrastructure in Mozambique is credited to you. Do you see yourself as a politician or a technocrat?“That’s a good question. The world would be a better place if we all take responsibility for what we say and can prove. So I like to say that I can communicate via Internet and I can show it. There is no single scientist who isn’t a politician. You cannot be a PhD or MSc without having an opinion on what you are defending. The debate about being a technocrat versus politician is irrelevant. What is important is the utilization of science. But of course you need knowledge of science to be able to implement it.”

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