Africa Must Innovate or Perish

Nigeria has approximately a 50-year supply of oil if no new oil is found. In a world without oil, the cutlass will replace the farm tractor. We know …


map-of-africa2Nigeria has approximately a 50-year supply of oil if no new oil is found. In a world without oil, the cutlass will replace the farm tractor. We know most oilfields have been discovered and that oil exists in limited quantities. We know that oil wells dry up after 50 years. Rather than debate the exact year when Nigeria will run out of oil, I prefer to imagine we’ve already run out. The arrival of that day is as certain as the death of the Oloibiri oil well.

If Nigeria’s oil well number one is empty and abandoned, what will be the fate of its oil well number one thousand? It may come sooner than any of us expect. Our heirs will thank or curse us for the amount of oil we leave for them.

Scientific discoveries lead to technological inventions and are the foundations of knowledge: the knowledge that must precede the development of new products, services, industries, jobs, and new wealth.

In human history, technological development and economic growth have gone hand-in-hand. A nation that is second to none in science is second to none in economic power. The grand challenge for African scientists is to make discoveries and inventions that can be domesticated and diffused into the continent’s economy.

It’s innovation and technology that create new products, which, in turn, create new wealth that alleviates poverty. For every ten gallons of oil in our oilfields, only three can be recovered. My discovery that an internet can solve physics problems by sending and receiving answers via emails is one of the innovative tools, techniques, and technologies used to recover maybe one percent of the remaining seven.

In 1989, while solving one of the 20 grand challenges in supercomputing, I broke world records in computation and communication. It garnered international headlines and I, the mathematical storyteller, became both the story and the witness.

I broke those records by reprogramming and reinventing an internet comprised of 65,000 subcomputers to compute and send and receive e-mails to and from 65,000 unique e-mail addresses and to solve 24 million equations, each restating the laws of physics at a world-record speed of 3.1 billion calculations per second.

My belief is that a scientist has to be more than a witness; he or she must be a person of ideas, in constant search of better rules. There is always room for better rules.

I reformulated and reduced Newton’s Second Law of Motion to 18 equations and algorithms, the mathematical lyrics of the Earth. My discovery of those equations and algorithms was front page news.

One day I received a phone call from an American mathematician working in Germany who had read about my discoveries in the Wall Street Journal in June of 1990. I explained to him the grand challenge equations I invented and solved. I said to him:

“At its physicalized core, three of the six primitive partial differential equations of meteorology used to forecast today’s weather are the same as the nine equations I invented for recovering more oil from oilfields and are the same as the Navier-Stokes equations.”

It was an “aha” moment for him. He bombarded me with technical questions. I answered: “They are the same because they emanated from the Second Law of Motion of physics. They’re calculus restatements of the Second Law which, in turn, are restated as the simple algebraic equation: Force equals Mass times Acceleration or F=ma.”

He became excited and pleaded with me to give a lecture in Washington, D.C.  on July 8, 1991 at a session he was chairing at an international congress of applied mathematicians, held once every four years. The ten thousand attendees comprised the largest gathering of the Who’s Who in mathematics.

I attended but I was dismayed and said to myself: “The first mathematics textbook was authored 3,700 years ago by an African named Ahmes. Yet, an alien at this conference would think they are no blacks on our planet.”

I am often asked to share my visions of the future and to predict how the internet could be used to solve Africa’s problems and create new possibilities for its people. My answer is that the internet will accelerate globalization even more and transform Africa, and that in the globalized world of the twenty-second century, there will be more Africans outside Africa than inside. Lagos will become an international metropolis and Africans will abandon their traditional clothing, cuisine, and cultural markers, becoming no more African than the black American. Many Africans in Africa will have a mixed racial heritage, like that of Barrack Obama.

While I predict this trend, I also question it. Is it progress for Africa to lose that which makes it unique? Ironically, developing a better technology also Europeanizes the African identity through globalization. A similar historical example can be found in the invention of the compass, which made it possible to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. This spawned the devastating Atlantic slave trade, which began in Africa on August 8, 1444.

It covered four continents and lasted four centuries. It forcibly uprooted millions of Africans to the Americas. It stripped Africans of their language, culture, and identity. It led to the African diaspora, with one in five Africans resettling in the Americas.

The future is for us to create, but first we must outline our vision. Foot soldiers, not generals, will lead our war against ignorance. The foot soldiers are our one hundred million young Nigerians whose weapon is knowledge. Their collective intellectual capital will enable them to build a stronger Nigeria using technology.

My 50-year vision for Nigeria to tap into the creativity of our young people. They have the potential to uplift humanity. Technology is all around us and we are constantly inventing and reinventing new tools, techniques, and technologies. That journey of discovery to the frontier of science reaffirms humanity’s goal to endlessly search for new knowledge, and to demand more of itself. Let’s do the best we can to make the world a better place through technology.

Excerpt from Nigeria’s 50th anniversary lecture at the
Embassy of Nigeria, Paris.
Lecture video and audio are posted at
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