CHEICK MODIBO DIARRA: AIMING FOR EXCELLENCEParis - Cheick Modibo Diarra, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador since 1998, is a leading African scientist. He is an interplanetary navigator with NASA (USA) and has become world-famous, especially through his work on the Pathfinder probe, which landed on Mars in July 1997 after a journey of 497 million km.
With his head in the stars, his feet firmly on Earth, the Malian-born astrophysicist has not forgotten Africa, which he left some 30 years ago. He returns there regularly and works for its development. "I have the good fortune of having one foot in my native continent, whose difficulties we all know, and one foot in the United States, in the world's most advanced laboratory," he says. "This means I'm always coming up with hybrid solutions."
As a very practical man, he tackles problems head-on, suggesting solutions that are quick, concrete and inexpensive, which means they are very feasible. He is not content with what he calls "makeshift" solutions. He aims for excellence.
As head of the Pathfinder Foundation for Education and Development in Africa (FEDA), you have set up "excellence camps" for older secondary school pupils studying science.
It's a way to motivate them, give them a chance to acquire extra knowledge and to give the best of them a shot at getting into the world's most prestigious universities. The camps are held in summer and last three weeks. Since 2000, we've held them in a member-country of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo). After Bamako andDakar, it's the turn of Yamoussoukro this year. After an exam, the top student gets a four-year university scholarship to study in the United States or Europe, which is paid for by the West African Central Bank (BCEAO). Last year, we also had a camp for teachers because it's no good training students and forgetting to train their teachers.
You've also founded a centre for new technology in Bamako. What kind of people are you trying to attract there?
Africans know that the new technologies are valuable but they don't always see how they can impact on their personal lives. The centre, which is open to everybody, offers courses in Word, Excel and other computer programmes, in professional Internet use, e-commerce and website creation. It has about 20 computers - though we'll be getting 40 more - and a very competent staff.
Is the staff Malian or American?
Local. They're all enthusiastic youngsters hired locally. They have, for example, invented a programme to handle mobile phone billing in Mali. That's a problem solved locally and we don't have to look abroad any more for a solution.
You've dreamed of setting up solar powered computers in Africa, to make up for the lack of electricity there. How is that idea advancing?
To get a project off theground you need money. When you don't have any, lots of ideas, like this one, don't get beyond the drawing board. We'll look at it again next year. Sponsorship is not an African concept.
What should African firms do to help the continent develop?
First of all they should understand that it's in their interest to have a very skilled workforce so they can compete abroad. Instead of waiting for students to be trained by the state and then trying to adapt them to the needs of the company - which is a makeshift and also costly way of going about things - our business people should visit the universities, pick out the brightest students and give them scholarships to research subjects the firms are interested in. That way, they'll not only make their products profitable but will be able to come up with new ones and patent them.
Another idea having trouble getting off the ground is that of a West African communications satellite.
When I was in Dakar last year, I noticed that Senegal's main telecommunications operator, Sonatel, had made an annual profit of 50 billion CFA francs (US $67million). Because the firm doesn't have a satellite, it has to rent channels for between 75 and 100 billion CFA francs (US $100m to US $133m) from a foreign company. Multiply that by the number of countries in West Africa and see what it adds up to.
Buying and launching a communications satellite costs $200 million - about 150 billion CFA francs. You'd just need 10 million Internet subscribers in West Africa as a whole paying the modest sum of $20 a year and you'd cover the cost. Which means that phones and television could bring in a straight profit from the first year. Also, the life expectancy of a communications satellite is 17 years, so during the next 16, these countries would earn each year the equivalent of the price of renting a satellite - money they could use to build as many schools and roads as they liked. Without forgetting that the satellite would be very useful for West African firms which, despite their competitive prices, lose a lot of customers because of bad phone facilities.
So what are we waiting for?
A lot of interests are involved. The companies renting their channels out don't welcome this opportunity and African decision-makers have to be very skilful. Such is Africa's lot. Even when things seem clear, they're not.
At the recent meeting of UNESCO's goodwill ambassadors in Paris, February 11 to 13, you proposed a project for a virtual university in Africa. How do you imagine it?
The virtual university is a structure - still in the planning stage - that would enable African universities to link up with the world's leading institutions of higher education, whose courses would be transmitted live by satellite onto giant screens in lecture hallsin Africa. Tens of thousands of students would be able to get top-level education without having to move from where they are.
These days, equipping a class with a satellite dish, computers and screens costs about $50,000. I proposed to my fellow goodwill ambassadors that we all get together to raise the $3 million needed to launch the project, that is, equipping one hall in each African country. After that, the universities themselves would have to develop the idea if they found it useful.
The students would pay a minimal registration fee and the money from that would be shared between the host university and the virtual one, which would pay for the lecturers and the marking of exam papers. You'd have top-level education at very little cost.
People have long been wondering how the new technologies could help Africa's development. Well, here's one answer.
How do you see UNESCO's role in the setting up of this virtual university?
UNESCO should organize as soon as possible a forum on higher education bringing together the heads of all of Africa's universities and all the ministers of education. Then we could together come up with an overall plan and see how it could be implemented and how the funds would be administered. But it has to be done very soon.
Cheick Modibo Diarra: an unusual life
A member of the Bambara people, Cheick Modibo Diarra was born in 1952 in Nioro, Mali. He began studying at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris in 1974 after graduating from Bamako Technical School. Two years later, at 24, and with a degree in analytical mechanics, maths and physics, he went to the United States to study at Howard University, in Washington DC. In 1982, he got a Masters in aerospace engineering and in 1986 a Ph.D in mechanical and aerospace engineering.
An interplanetary navigator with NASA since 1988, he works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena (California), where he guides space probes to their destinations - Magellan (to Venus), Ulysses (the Sun), Galileo (Jupiter) and Mars Observer and Mars Pathfinder to the Red Planet. They have been great successes, especially Pathfinder, and have earned him various awards including, in 1999, NASA's annual Innovation Prize.
He was named director of the Education and Outreach Program for the Mars Exploration Progran in 1994 and is in charge of working with companies, universities, colleges and schools. Since 1996, he has been a member of the Mars Exploration Team, which is organizing ten missions over 10 years.
Diarra is also a member of the American Astronautical Society (AAS), the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics (AIAA) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
For more on him, see his book L'extraordinaire aventure d'un enfant du Mali,from the French publisher Albin Michel (1999).
UNESCO Goodwill Ambassadors come from all parts of the world and are drawn from different professions, but they have one thing in common: they have made themselves spokespersons for UNESCO and itsideals of peace, justice, solidarity and mutual understanding.
Two of the 36 ambassadors are from Africa - Nobel Prizewinner for Literature Wole Soyinka (Nigeria) and astrophysicist Cheick Modibo Diarra.
Contact: Jasmina Sopova, Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section
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