Helping to build statistical capacity in Africa: a Q&A with Jane Hutton

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features-OLD

In 2003, the physicists Neil Turok and Fritz Hahne embarked on a project to create an indigenous pool of mathematical excellence in Africa. Together they founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in South Africa. Since then, the project has branched out to form centres in Senegal, Cameroon, Tanzania and Ghana, under an initiative to find the next Einstein in Africa.

The centres offer students from across Africa the chance to expand their academic knowledge in an environment firmly rooted in their home continent. The five centres all operate as self-contained learning environments, with students and lecturers all living under the same roof for the duration of the course.

As AIMS has grown, so too has the mathematical courses on offer, with probability and statistics now being taught by visiting lecturers. Jane Hutton, professor of statistics at the University of Warwick is one such volunteer who has become a regular visitor to AIMS and she gave us an insight into life at the Institute while she made her most recent visit to the centre in Biriwa, Ghana.

How important is it for African students to become qualified in statistics for the future development of their respective nations?

A number of the students here have already told me that their countries need statisticians in order for education, health, agriculture and all aspects of infrastructure to be properly developed. I noticed a comment by the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics that one contributor to unemployment is a lack of information about opportunities and skills. A student from Zambia also commented that many of those in his country's statistical service have very limited training. One of the reasons that Ebola is out of control in three west-African countries is the absence of effective basic statistical reporting systems for infectious diseases.

Around me here in Biriwa, I can see many small fields. Good research on which crops are most productive, what methods of planting or irrigation are most effective, could really improve the lives of those living in the small houses which crowd into the village.

Students who attend the AIMS centres are drawn from many African nations. How does this affect your approach to the lectures you give?

AIMS students are all graduates, with honours or masters degrees (4-year university degrees) in mathematics or any science or engineering subject with a significant mathematics component. Visiting lecturers teach on the intensive one-year postgraduate course. The variation in syllabuses and teaching approaches across Africa makes flexibility a requirement, both in the content of courses and in the exercises used.

For some students, I suggest further reading and exercises. For others I try to ensure that the main, basic concepts are clear and that the students can look back at the end of three weeks and recognise that they have advanced their knowledge and understanding.

Can you explain how important the computer labs at the AIMS centres are to the student's studies?

For many students, learning about the AIMS computing facilities and packages, with particular emphasis on LaTeX and programming in Python is exciting, but also challenging and exhausting. The local IT staff and resident tutors are generally available most hours of the day, and a good part of the evening, encouraging and instructing. These skills are used in all subsequent courses, so at the end of the eleven months, most students are confident in a good range of computer skills.

The entire computing environment is built on freeware, mainly through SAGE as the unifying system. Personally I use R, and many students are thrilled to discover that such high quality statistical software is free. In January, a student from Zambia told me that he had collected data for his final year dissertation, but had not been able to analyse it in any detail, as his university could not pay the licence fee for Strata or Minitab.

In Ghana, there are regular power-cuts, but AIMS has its own generator, so we carry on. The generator did fail for one night of my visit for about an hour. For this reason, the computer lab is based on laptops and we all simply carried on working in the dark, so touch-typing is very useful for this.

What kind of language difficulties are there with students drawn from across the African continent?

Some students arrive with very limited English, I have to remind myself to speak slowly at times. It is sometimes possible for non-English speaking students to arrive early and have some intensive teaching. This year in Ghana, arrival was delayed by the precautions taken against Ebola, and a few students are struggling. The strong sense of collegiality here means that students who are bi or tri-lingual help others by explaining in the relevant language.

However, it does mean that we can recognise who the strongest students are amongst the fluent English speakers, but find it difficult to separate lack of understanding of English from failure to grasp the mathematics among the other students. David Stern who is also teaching a course in this block, is French-English bilingual, so it is only the Arabic speakers (perhaps five or six of the 40 students) who cannot have mathematical discussions with him without worrying about language.

What relationship to building capacity in Africa should the role of aid play in seeking to help development in Africa?

International development projects are now typically evaluated using randomised trials. I am pleased to know that greater understanding is sought, as that ought to make aid more effective. However, the standard of interventions and evaluation could be improved - substantially.

From the balcony outside the office we share, I can see a smartly built market, half way between the sea and the road, which sits empty and unused. When we walk along the road, we pass stalls by the road-side and people carrying the goods they have for sale. Vehicles pull in to the side to buy. Whoever decided to build that market did not take into account the reality of shopping in Ghana - the market ought to have been by the side of the road, preferably with enough space for vehicles to stop.

We need people who can observe local issues, think about a range of possible responses, and critically assess the options.

Why do you think this is a project more statistics and probability academics from the West should get involved in?

Noblesse oblige, or of those to whom much is given, much is expected! We have relatively rare knowledge and skills, and many of us are in a position to offer education to others. Not only does statistical and probability education have the potential to benefit many people beyond those who are directly able to acquire it, it is fairly difficult to steal or divert. Corruption is a considerable problem, but there is a limited black market for mathematical books and lessons!

The advantage of working through the AIMS centres is that there is a good infrastructure and working environment, fund-raising and the selection of students is done by others. It is therefore possible to fly in for three weeks, make a contribution, and leave the administration to others.

What rewards and experiences can Africa offer those who might be interested?

At AIMS, you meet students from all over Africa and learn about their countries and cultures. In Ghana, all meals are local and many of them I had never eaten before. I have also enjoyed meeting other visiting academics. You get to respond to enthusiastic questioning of the mathematics you are teaching and to demonstrate your resilience and sense of humour.

AIMS South Africa is situated in one of the world's top tourist areas and has good local public transport links. Numerous well stocked shops are accessible and excellent food and wine is readily available. There is a worry about crime in South Africa, so you do have to know what sensible behaviour is.

At AIMS Ghana, security is not an issue - the building is not locked and although there are two security guards, there are at least four entrances. However, the standard of wiring and plumbing are variable. There is little to buy in the village, but you can journey to Cape Coast which is half an hour away by tro-tro (a minibus taxi) if you want a bank, post office or supermarket.


Academics interested in volunteering to teach a course at AIMS can visit their website to find out more about the structured Master's course.

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