Batmanathan Dayanand Reddy | Professor Emeritus of Applied Mathematics, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Africa’s brightest young minds: The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) and its impact on development on the continent

1.     The context

The importance of education as a foundational building block for socio-economic development is well understood and acknowledged, as is evident for example in its inclusion as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and through its cross-cutting relevance to many of the others. Populations with a significant number of highly skilled graduates are well placed to work innovatively towards growth and to address major social and economic challenges. The converse is a stark one: lack of access, or poor access, to higher education constitutes a major barrier to development, and leads to deepening of inequalities, and marginalization.

Africa faces some of the world’s toughest development challenges in health, agriculture and food security, education, communication infrastructure, the reduction of poverty levels, and in access to basic resources.

Advances in science and technology offer extraordinary opportunities and are the key to progress in socio-economic development. The onus is on Africa to respond to these opportunities by building a pool of scientific and technical talent that would lead the way to achieving such progress. There can be no more effective investment in Africa’s future than in education which empowers young people. And in this age of rapid scientific and technological development, it is higher or tertiary education that holds the key to fostering growth and combating poverty and inequality.

The sustainability of a robust science system, well connected to similar systems and communities around the world, depends on the existence of a critical mass of graduates at masters and doctoral levels: graduates who are able to contribute to scientific advances, who would form the core of university teachers and researchers, and who possess the skills to build on solid foundations in adapting and contributing to the rapid developments in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics, biotechnology, energy, materials and other sciences, with substantial benefits in areas as diverse as manufacturing, health, agriculture and food security.

The challenge of expanding access to education at this level is, particularly among low-income countries, a substantial one. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest regional tertiary enrolment rate in the world: only 9% of the traditional aged cohort continues from secondary to tertiary education [1].

Major planning and policy documents such as the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA2024) [2] recognize the urgency with which to address these challenges, and are clear about their extent. For example, in 2018 Sub-Saharan Africa had 124 FTE Researchers per million of population, compared to 3372 for Europe, 4432 for North America, 593 for Latin America, and 1307 for China [3].

While there is some progress at national level and continentally – for example strong growth in enrolments at centres of excellence and in numbers of researchers [4] – the reality is that the G20 countries account for nine-tenths of researchers (88.8%), research spending (93.2%) and scientific publications (90.6%) globally.

2.     The first steps: AIMS South Africa

Mathematics is central to the sciences and technology and there is a dearth of mathematically trained graduates in Africa. A specific response to this challenge begins with the conviction that the talent and commitment to succeed exists plentifully in Africa, and that it is possible to make a significant contribution towards the development of Africa by allowing such talent to flourish. This was the essence of the thinking behind the creation of AIMS, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS): the brainchild of Neil Turok, an outstanding mathematical physicist, born in South Africa to parents who were activists in South Africa’s liberation movement, and who subsequently went into political exile with their children.

Bearing in mind the particular needs in the sciences, particularly mathematics, at the advanced levels, the vision was of an institute to provide Africa’s brightest young minds with a high-quality, innovative education at the graduate level, equipping them to contribute to Africa’s scientific development. “Mathematics is the cheapest of disciplines and provides the invisible plumbing underlying modern society” [5]. With considerable skill, determination and passion, Turok was able to generate support for the vision and reality of AIMS in academia, among policymakers, and philanthropic organisations internationally [5].

The key idea was to mount a residential Master’s programme with students recruited from across the African continent. The Master’s course would serve as a feeder programme for more advanced study, for example at doctoral level, and would provide a strong background for students proceeding to careers in education, government, and the private sector.

Given the intended location of AIMS in Cape Town, South Africa, it was essential to have the three institutions in the broader Cape Town area – the Universities of Cape Town, the Western Cape, and Stellenbosch – on board. Rather than seek registration as a degree-granting institution, agreement was reached with these three partners that students would be formally registered at their universities in equal numbers, but would be accommodated, supported, and would engage in academic activities at the AIMS campus. The three local universities were joined by the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Paris-Sud to form the team of university partners. This group of universities – leaders, deans, faculty members – has played a pivotal role in getting AIMS on to its feet, working to address many threats, and in ensuring its many successes.

The idea of a dedicated campus or location for AIMS, central to the overall vision, became a reality with the donation to the Institute of an art deco building in Muizenberg, a coastal suburb of Cape Town, by the Turok family. This became and remains the hub, engine room, and locus for teaching and learning and social activities, with students (and many visiting lecturers) living there, taking their meals there, and attending lectures in this building, which had to undergo significant renovation to repurpose it from its previous incarnation as a home for the aged, to a modern, innovative educational institute and home for young people.

Finding the students would not be a problem, as became clear following the extensive numbers of enquiries and applications which followed the call. It was clear during the planning stages that the step from application to a positive offer to arrival would depend on the ability of AIMS to guarantee funding, given the essentially zero access to funds available to potential students. A key task of the AIMS Council and Trustees therefore was that of securing funding that would cover operational costs including that of the academic programme, as well as the students’ accommodation and living and other costs related to their studies. In this regard AIMS was fortunate to be able to secure substantial funding support from a range of international donors, together with dedicated allocations from South Africa’s departments of higher education and of science and technology.

Starting effectively with a blank sheet, the goal was to mount a one-year graduate programme in the mathematical sciences, which would provide a broad set of skills through a curriculum attuned to contemporary developments. Independent thinking and problem-solving in the context of individual and small-group work would be core to the approach. Furthermore, the mathematical sciences would be interpreted broadly, making for multi-disciplinary thinking and activity in a natural way.

The curriculum, then and now, comprises three phases: the first, referred to as the skills phase, provides foundational material, English language lessons (if necessary), acquaintance with open-source mathematical software packages, and addresses mathematical gaps in students’ backgrounds. The second, review phase comprises an array of elective courses providing an overview and introduction to topics at a somewhat more advanced level. The review courses on offer in any academic year are selected from proposals solicited from academics internationally. The teaching mode both for the foundational and review material is an intensive one with courses presented in three-week blocks of around 30 contact hours. A further significant feature of the programme is that assessments are conducted orally and through project work. Lecturers are in residence during the period of their courses, during which time they are supported by tutors in residence. Students and faculty members and staff have their meals together and are able easily to interact socially and in the course of the students’ work. During the third phase all students undertake a three-month long project during which they work on a topic under the supervision of a faculty member, usually from a South African university. The curriculum structure, mode of teaching and learning, and the highly inclusive manner in which the institute functions, all make for a warm, productive, energetic, culturally diverse and thriving academic environment.

Review courses offered over the years include topics as diverse as topology and geometry, number theory, astrophysics and cosmology, probability theory and statistical inference, fluid mechanics, stochastic calculus with applications to control and finance, epidemiological modelling, and wavelets.

The inaugural student cohort of 30 students, from 11 African countries, arrived in September 2003. These numbers would grow to a steady state in excess of 50 students annually, giving a total to date of around 900 AIMS South Africa alumni from 41 countries. Listening to the stories of these bright young minds, it was clear then and it remains the case that students and their families will have made huge sacrifices in order for them to leave home and study further at AIMS.

3.     AIMS becomes a network

In due course it became natural, given the success of AIMS South Africa, to broaden the original vision, to one of a network of institutes across Africa. A combination of factors led to the realization of this next step. First, Neil Turok had been awarded a TED Prize in 2008. Prize winners are asked about their ambitious wish – what they would spend their prize money on. Turok’s wish was that the next Einstein would come from Africa, and that this would be achieved through the harnessing of talent in Africa through a network of institutes, to becalled the Next Einstein Initiative. The second stimulus came from African countries themselves: individuals passionate about establishing such centres in their countries. A key early example was Senegal, through the efforts of Vincent Rivasseau, a French professor, lecturer at AIMS, and former AIMS SA Council member; and Mamadou Sanghare, a professor at Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. Senegal saw the light of day as the second institute, in 2011. This was followed by AIMS Ghana in 2012, AIMS Cameroon in 2013, Tanzania[1] in 2014, and Rwanda, the newest member in 2016.

Thus, AIMS had evolved from a successful institute to a continental network, with a vision and mission of enabling Africa’s talented students to flourish as independent thinkers, problem solvers and innovators capable of propelling Africa’s future scientific, educational and economic self-sufficiency.

A similar funding model applied to all institutes, with commitments from governments of host countries being an essential component, together with funding from generous donor organizations and individuals.

In addition to the established Master’s programme there are further postgraduate offerings. In 2017 a Master’s programme in Mathematical Science for Climate Resilience was initiated, with support from the International Development Research Centre of Canada. The programme is designed to increase the contribution of African mathematical scientists to finding solutions to climate change-related challenges in Africa.

With the sponsorship of Facebook and Google and support from the global AI community, the Africa Masters of Machine Intelligence (AMMI) programme was launched in 2018. This programme provides young Africans with state-of-the art training in machine learning and its applications.

4.     Taking it to the next level

Over the years AIMS has expanded the scope of its activities, so as to contribute in addressing challenges and pursuing opportunities relevant to Africa over a broad front. This expansion in scope has led to the Network becoming a multi-faceted institution incorporating activities that lie at the intersections of science, research and innovation, and society. Descriptions of some of these initiatives follow.


The link between postgraduate education and development with research is clear, and so the step towards establishing research as an area of activity at AIMS was a natural one. The AIMS Research Centre was established in 2008 at AIMS South Africa. The Centre hosts a number of research programmes which are pursued by a combination of resident researchers, visitors, postdoctoral fellows and research masters, and PhD students.

The focus at AIMS Research is on cutting-edge topics which relate to mathematical modelling in a multi-disciplinary context, particularly those that are most relevant to African development, and especially in fields where scientists in Africa have a competitive advantage and can engage in world leading research. Research focus areas include topics in pure mathematics, data science, climate science, agriculture and food systems, medicine and healthcare, and financial mathematics. Dynamic research centres now exist at all institutes in the Network.

Research activity in the Network was given a substantial boost through the establishment of a number of externally funded research chairs. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation of Germany, with funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, initiated the German Research Chair Programme, which makes provision for altogether seven chairs, each institute having at least one such chair. In addition, the International Development Research Centre has funded a Canada Research Chair in climate change science, while the Carnegie Corporation of New York has provided support for a chair in data science.

AIMS, in collaboration with the Robert Bosch Foundation of Germany, created the ARETÉ Junior Chair Programme, which has allowed young researchers showing exceptional promise to build their research teams, develop their research profiles, and eventually be in a position to take up senior chairs and other similar positions as academic leaders.

Various initiatives have aimed to place researchers at the cutting edge of new technologies. Quantum Leap Africa (QLA) was created to catalyze top quality high-impact research in data science and smart systems engineering. This programme incorporates the AIMS Doctoral Training Programme in Data Science. A related initiative has been the African Data Science Intensive Programme, which draws on real-world problems to provide hands-on knowledge of the algorithms and techniques in data science and machine learning.

Continuing professional development of teachers

The AIMS Schools Enrichment Centre (AIMSSEC) was established at the same time as AIMS South Africa. AIMSSEC works with primary and secondary school teachers to increase their content knowledge and their pedagogical approaches and, in so doing, to raise the quality of teaching and learning mathematics. A three-month Mathematical Thinking Course has to date been completed by well over 2000 teachers.

Through a partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, AIMS runs a Teacher Training Programs (TTP) in Cameroon and Rwanda. AIMS TTP trains master trainers, who in turn train other secondary school mathematics teachers. The goal is to train over 10,000 teachers and in so doing to reach over a million secondary school students within five years in these two countries.

Through these innovative pedagogical approaches AIMS is playing a critical role in building a sustainable pipeline of home-grown talent in Africa.

Industry initiatives

The AIMS Industry Initiative builds and leverages industry partnerships to identify opportunities for AIMS students and alumni as well as industry partners. The interventions include short-term work placements, internships and employment.

AIMS, in partnership with the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), Berlin, and with funding support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation (BMZ) through the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), launched the AIMS ESMT Industry Immersion Program at AIMS South Africa in 2017. The program transfers competences from one of Europe’s leading business schools to AIMS students and develops business links between African graduates and German businesses operating in Africa through internship and postgraduate employment.

A partnership with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) through its Africa Non-Communicable Diseases Open Lab Programme has provided for year-long internships for AIMS graduates.

Public engagement

The AIMS House of Science Initiative aims to advance science communication and public engagement at AIMS, and in so doing to develop greater public understanding and appreciation of science, particularly in the context of societal development. Effort is directed towards promoting mathematics and science engagement, and working with AIMS students, researchers and alumni so that they are better able to undertake public engagement activities. The House of Science model took shape at AIMS South Africa and is being extended across the entire network of AIMS institutes.

Through such activities as well as special programmes such as Africa Science Week, Science and Cocktails, Pi Day or the International Day of Mathematics, AIMS is playing its part in demystifying mathematics and the sciences, and conveying something of the joy and excitement in working with mathematics, as well as of its pivotal place in addressing major challenges.

Next Einstein Forum

The Next Einstein Forum (NEF) is motivated by the belief that Africa’s contributions to the global scientific community are critical for global progress. The NEF is a platform that connects science, society and policy in Africa and the rest of the world – with the goal to leverage science for human development globally.

The biennial NEF Global Gatherings are the Forum’s most visible events. These position science at the centre of global development efforts by bringing together political and industry leaders, leaders from civil society, and global science leaders to engage in debate and to seek collaborative pathways to a brighter future for African science, and for Africa generally. The inaugural NEF Global Gathering was held in Senegal in 2016.

The NEF Community of Scientists includes the NEF Fellows, among Africa’s best young scientists, while the Ambassadors, one from each African country, are the NEF’s young science and technology champions.

5.     Impact, and the future

How does one measure the impact of AIMS in this, the twentieth year of its existence? Well, we might start with some statistics. AIMS is proud to have produced over 2200 Masters graduates, 32% of whom are women. Alumni represent 43 countries, of a total of 54 countries in Africa. The alumni, some 70% of whom have remained in or returned to Africa, are serving as leaders in academia, industry and research. The journeys of AIMS alumni, many of which are featured on the network’s website, are profiles of inspiration and models for future generations of young Africans to follow.

AIMS researchers have been responsible for over 600 publications, and have advised more than 100 postdoctoral researchers. AIMS has been able to succeed through the support and involvement of more than 200 partners, over 500 academics who have served as lecturers, and more than 250 distinguished resident and visiting researchers.

All of these data present a picture of a highly successful academic institution whose impact on the African continent, when measured against that of universities and research institutions in Africa, is significant. But the impact of AIMS goes beyond these numbers, impressive as they are. Guided by its vision, values, and firm belief in the ability of African scientists to succeed when given the opportunities, AIMS has inspired young people to pursue their dreams to become mathematicians and scientists, and to do outstanding work on the continent.

The innovative nature of work at AIMS is best illustrated by the emphasis on having African scientists engage with areas and topics which are reshaping the world in which we live, a key example being the activities in data science. Such developments allow for African scientists to become real partners, rather than merely recipients, in the global scientific community, through collaborative efforts within Africa and between Africa and other parts of the world.

AIMS has taken its vision and mission to heart in reaching beyond the conventional boundaries of academia, and in so doing has contributed significantly to strengthening the backgrounds of teachers, bringing mathematics closer to broader society, and working with leaders in industry to the great benefit of alumni and institutions in the private and public sectors.

To coin a phrase, this is the end of the beginning. The challenge now is to work with academics, leaders in our universities, and governments, towards a truly pan-African presence and impact, with a trebling or more in the number of institutes from the current five pioneering members of the Next Einstein Initiative. It is hoped that the Network would serve as a model for similar such initiatives by other individuals and groups in Africa.


It is a great pleasure to acknowledge the commitment and contributions of teachers, researchers, university leaders and colleagues, partners, donors and alumni, whose efforts have made it possible for AIMS to become the network of excellence that it is. I have been privileged to be part of the founding team of AIMS South Africa, to serve on its Council, and as a trustee of the AIMS South Africa Trust.


1.              World Bank Education Overview (2021). Available at

2.              African Union Commission (2014). On the Wings of Innovation: Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024. Available at

3.              UNESCO (2021) UNESCO Science Report: the Race Against Time for Smarter Development. S. Schneegans, T. Straza and J. Lewis (eds). UNESCO Publishing: Paris. Figures 1.3, 1.9 and 20.5.

4.              Ibid, Tables 18.1, 19.4 and Figure 19.4.

5.              AIMS-South Africa (2013). AIMS: The First Decade. A. Beardon (ed). AIMS-SA, Muizenberg.


[1] AIMS Tanzania closed in 2019, leaving currently a network of five institutes.