There is a general recognition that economic growth and global competitiveness are increasingly driven by knowledge and that universities play a key role in that context. There is also evidence that rapid advances in science and technology (S&T) across many areas—from information and communication technologies (ICT) to biotechnology to new materials—provide great potential for countries to accelerate and strengthen their economic development. Those countries that are incapable of using the results of scientific investigation in more efficient and relevant ways cannot reap the results from scientific knowledge to produce goods and services and deliver them more effectively and at lower costs to a greater number of people. An appropriate economic and institutional regime, a strong human capital base, a dynamic information infrastructure, and an efficient national innovation system are critical factors.

As technological advances have propelled the development of many countries in recent years, Sub-Saharan Africa has fallen ever further behind in science and technology. This contrast, which is believed to largely account for the increasing economic and income disparity, is reflected in education, knowledge output and outcomes. For instance, the average number of scientists and engineers per million is about 83 in Sub-Saharan Africa, significantly below the average across North Africa (423) and all developing countries (514). Much higher estimates are recorded in other parts of the world, with 783 in Asia (excluding Japan), and 1102 in industrial countries. This contrast has the risk of further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and widening the economic and knowledge gaps between Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. This is particularly true given the poor and deteriorating state of Sub-Saharan Africa’s scientific infrastructure and higher learning institutions, particularly in the areas of science and engineering.

The realization that Sub Saharan African (SSA) countries were lagging behind the rest of the world led to the initiative by then World Bank President James Wolfensohn and President Nelson Mandela in 2001 to support a novel approach to support the development of Science and Technology in higher education in Africa. This in turn led to the creation of the Nelson Mandela Institution for Knowledge Building and the Advancement of Science and Technology in SSA (NMI).

Using seed money from the World Bank, endorsement by African Heads of States and generous donations in both land and millions of dollars in grants from the governments of Burkina Faso (even prior to the Mandela-Wolfensohn initiative), Nigeria and Tanzania, NMI now has three affiliated centers of excellence devoted to graduate education in S&T. The African Development Bank (ADB) has also provided grants to the centers in Ouagadougou and Abuja totaling more than 10 million Units of Account (UA). Partnerships with top-level universities or institutes from the US, Europe have also played a major role.