During the past 10 years, the image of Africa as a developing continent has changed for the better. We understand among the fastest growing economies of the world at least 10 of them are in Africa. Whether this belated growth will be sustained one can only hope so. We must not sit up on our laurels and say Africa has taken off like an aeroplane. It requires 20 to 30 years of recurring high growth rates for a poor country to join the league of the newly-industrialised countries.
For Africa’s lacklustre growth of the first 40 years of our independence, we ourselves and non Africans blame corrupt regimes and dictators. Not much is being said about the failure of Africa’s intelligentsia and bourgeois to make individual contributions. As far back as the early 1960s, President John F Kennedy of the United States said to his countrypeople: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” Most Africans have been asking what their countries can do for them not what they can do for their country.
The economic history of Europe and North America is full of individuals who made inventions, innovations or wrote deeply thought out books. These acts created industries which contributed to the wealth of western nations. Some of these men and women engaged in research and inventions not primarily to have the midas touch but to bring growth and glory to their countries. One of such men was French called Louis Pasteur. In 1870-71, France was defeated in the France-Prussian war. This was less than a century since France under Napoleon Bonaparte was enjoying the hegemony over Europe.
Pasteur decided to deviate himself to research in chemistry, make discoveries and thereby retrieve the honour of France as a great nation. His early schooldays gave no clue to what he was to achieve. Later, when he sat an entrance examination to Ecole Normale of the most prestigious institutions in the French educational system, Pasteur passed as number 14 and was rejected. He tried again and succeeded. Like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, the degree with which Pasteur came out of the university was third class.
From his lowly beginning as the son of a mere peasant farmer and not a very brilliant student, Louis Pasteur went ahead to do the researches and discoveries. Someone has written about Pasteur. “Of all the great men who have left a trail of enduring light, there are few to compare with Louis Pasteur.” He was eager to learn that during holidays, he would shut himself in a library. Chemistry was his chosen field. It was said of him that: “Love of country was so real to him that sacrifices of self were made without struggle.” Pasteur started with the study of crystals but later switched to the study of microbes. He discovered that fermentation was caused by invisible, infinitely small and numerous loving organisms which we now call germs. This was a distinctly new theory; some of the elder scientists doubted his discoveries and mocked him.
His discoveries led to the saving of the wine and silk industries in France. He found ways of destroying germs and then made known to the world of surgery the means of sterilising and the use of antiseptics. Time came when he applied his theories about germs directly to diseases which afflicted life. The splenic fever had been ruining the flocks and herds of France, cholera had been a scourge to dogs, chickens and humans. Then there was the disease called hydrophobia. Pasteur found the germ and conquered the disease. Pasteur was hailed as a public benefactor by his country people. He was offered the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honour. He rejected it unless it was offered to his collaborators also.
Emperor Napoleon III, who was much interested in Pasteur’s work, asked him why he was not trying to make money out of his discoveries. Pasteur answered that true scientists lowered themselves by using their discoveries to make money. Moreover, he said, he could ruin his simplicity of life which he considered essential to all worthy achievements. “To the Kennedyan type of question, what can I do for my country, Pasteur answered: “I will save the lives of people, plants and livestock. You do not have to be a president of your country, member of the opposition or a millionaire to do good to your country. Just make use of your talent in any field.
People of the West, Europe and North America have a lot to teach us Africans about how to develop. Individuals were and are very ambitious to achieve something distinct. They engaged and still engaged in research out of which new products are developed. Rich people and institutions patronise gifted person who lack means of their own. Malawi’s economy would experience prosperity if some scientists discovered what it is in the leaf of tobacco that causes cancer and then demonstrate how to manufacture cigarettes that are health friendly.
This may seem incredible and preposterous. Thomas Alva Edison said the secret of making inventions is to have imagination, ambition and to work hard. Most of the devices of civilisation which we now take for granted such as aeroplanes, televisions were thought possible only in the fiction of magicians. Come along scientists, could save Malawi’s tobacco industry in the manner Pasteur save France’s silk industry. n