Africa’s rapidly increasing population, low school attendance rates, a shortage of teachers, low literacy and techno-literacy rates, and a lack of institutional capacity at a tertiary level have led to severe educational imbalances. This emphasises the urgent need to develop a stronger network of informal and non-formal educational facilities that support the formal education sector.
In particular, interactive science centres offer pooled educational resources and expertise that can assist under-resourced schools to not only teach science, technology and mathematics but, more importantly, instil an interest and curiosity in science in young people from all cultures.
Depending on how you define them, and it is often difficult to distinguish between an interactive science centre and a museum, there are only 49 science centres in Africa, 47 on the mainland and two on adjacent islands (Mauritius and Réunion), representing about 5% of science centres worldwide. Furthermore, science centres in Africa are unevenly distributed, with about 73% in southern Africa (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana), 17% occurring in North Africa (Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt), 6% in East Africa (Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia), only 2% in West Africa, and 2% in Mauritius and Réunion.
Many science centres in Africa are small by international standards and serve mainly as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education centres for the youth. Only a few, such as those in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Mauritius, Réunion, Morocco and South Africa, resemble the large, publicly accessible, museum-like venues that cater for both youth and adults.
The worldwide average for science centres per capita is about one for every 10 million people. The USA and Canada have twelve times the world average, while South Africa has seven times this average, and the rest of Africa has only 7%. To put this into perspective, the USA has 180 times as many science centres per capita as most of Africa. Of the 54 countries and territories in Africa, only eleven have science centres, with South Africa having the most at 33, the third largest number worldwide per capita after the USA and Canada. The vast majority of African people do not, therefore, have access to science centres and their outreach activities.
Factors that have limited the development of science centres in Africa include a skill shortage to conceptualise, design, build and operate science centres. Science centre managers need to pay more attention to measuring and evaluating their impact on visitors. Science centre umbrella bodies and the Master’s courses in informal science education now offered at Stellenbosch University in South Africa are helping to overcome these obstacles. There is, however, no science centre umbrella body that promotes the development of science centres in Africa as a whole outside southern Africa (covered by SAASTEC) and North Africa (covered by NAMES).
Furthermore, African governments need to follow the examples set by South Africa, Tunisia, Egypt, Mauritius and Réunion in promoting science centre (and science festival) development from a national and provincial level. The excellent record that science centres have achieved internationally should make it clear that they are one of the most cost-effective ways of disseminating science and technology learning and strengthening a science culture, both complementing the formal educational sector. Their ‘hands-on, minds-on, hearts on’ approach engages visitors physically, mentally and emotionally, and their relatively language-free exhibits are well-suited to multicultural and multilingual audiences, and they cater for visitors from a wide range of ages and socio-economic backgrounds.
Today, in most of Africa, science activities are almost entirely located in cities and are predominantly targeted at children attending school. At their present level of development, science centres will struggle to reach and heighten the level of scientific awareness of the hundreds of millions of people spread over the vast continent, especially in rural areas. We believe that science centres and their associated non-formal science and technology educational initiatives have the potential to play a major role in the development of the African continent, but only if they are developed in such a way that they can reach out to most of the people of Africa.