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Africa’s young researchers have a long road ahead

Copyright: Marcel Wogram für VolkswagenStiftung

Speed read

  • Africa’s researchers are facing an uphill struggle to establish their careers

  • Lack of financial support from governments is one of the main hurdles

  • Seed funds, networking opportunities and better institutional support are needed

[HANOVER] Early-career researchers in Africa must receive better financial support from their governments if they are to establish themselves in their fields and if the continent’s higher education capacity is to increase, some of Africa’s top young scientists said at a recent gathering.
Networking opportunities, quality of teaching and the range of doctorate subjects offered by institutions are other areas that must be improved, they said.
More than 60 fellows of the Volkswagen Foundation, which funds the work of young researchers in Africa, came together in Hanover, Germany, last month (3-4 October) to discuss their experiences of higher education.
All too often, African students do not have access to funding, which affects the numbers able to study for a doctorate and the quality of the research on the continent, says Naa Lamle Amissah, a lecturer in the University of Ghana’s crop science department.
“If you don’t have research funding you are paying out of [your] own pocket, which limits [the] scale and scope of research,” she tells SciDev.Net.
In addition, professors generally provide no help in writing grant proposals — despite the importance of grants in allowing students to get their qualification, Amissah says. This, combined with extensive teaching and administrative duties, leaves students with little time to advance their own research.
Mind the gap
Financial difficulties do not end once researchers have gained their doctorate, says Pauline Mwinzi, a research officer at the Kenya Medical Research Institute.
Most African governments do not recognise the need for “seed money” to allow scientists to collect the preliminary baseline data required to write successful proposals, she tells SciDev.Net.
Without these data it is extremely difficult to show funders both the area of proposed study and the potential of a larger-scale project, and researchers are thus effectively locked out of large grant schemes, she adds.
Some countries, such as Kenya, are beginning to see the importance of this type of support, Mwinzi says, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
“Institutions need to be aware of this gap that prevents young researchers from venturing out and then lobby governments to change the situation.”
Large grants become more obtainable if groups of young researchers band together to pool their resources, but this is difficult if they do not have good professional networks, says Mwinzi. Networking is a pivotal issue — one which needs to be supported by a greater focus on activities such as exchange programs and international conferences, she says.
Broadening horizons
Networking can also have a formative effect on PhD students, says Lydia Olaka, a lecturer in the University of Nairobi’s geology department. When African students come to Northern institutions to attend international conferences or summer schools, it opens their eyes to what is possible, she says.
“When [African] PhD students meet others from outside, they see the seriousness and quality of work that is the norm,” Olaka tells SciDev.Net.
In her experience, students who see the competitiveness of world-class universities apply the same attitude to their studies when they return home, and complete their qualification much earlier.
The lack of support from professors combined with a busy teaching workload, often sees doctorate studies taking around seven years in Kenya, which is longer than in many Western countries, she adds.
According to Eduardo Samo Gudo, head of department at the National Health Institute, Mozambique, the relatively small number of qualified scientists in Africa means that once they get a doctorate, the opportunities to become a leader in their field are much higher than they are in Europe.
But, once again, funding is the main obstacle that prevents people taking this vital first step on the career ladder, he says.
“You can progress very fast, but the lack of resources and funding are major problems.”
Furthermore, the insufficient number of academic institutions limits both the places available for graduate students and the choice of subjects available, which leads to many students having no choice but to go abroad for their education, he says.
Regional centres of excellence are a good way of pooling limited resources to provide quality education, Gudo says, but these should not be established at the expense of local institutions, which are essential for disseminating knowledge.
Government responsibility
Governments must follow the example of countries such as Brazil, China, India, where substantial state investment has seen a large increase in institutions and qualified scientists, Gudo adds.
The theme of government responsibility, which permeated discussions about early-stage researchers during the Hanover conference, is picked up again by Balgah Roland Azibo, a lecturer in the science faculty of the University of Bamenda, Cameroon.

“Science is open and relies on people being able to publish in another discipline.”

Balgah Roland Azibo, University of Bamenda, Cameroon 

African states must create an attractive environment for professors if the quality of teaching is to improve, he says.
Providing small research allowances, tax benefits and well-paid short-term consultancies — as well as engaging with the diaspora — are all policies governments could pursue to achieve this goal, he adds.
Azibo thinks the rigid institutional frameworks of African institutions, which often require academics to publish exclusively within their own narrow field of expertise if they are to receive a tenured position, also need to be adapted. 
In a world where interdisciplinary science is increasingly valued, he believes a lack of opportunity to collaborate across various subjects is a major deterrent to researchers looking to work in Africa.
“Science is open and relies on people being able to publish in another discipline.”
Retention of local talent, in order to build a new generation of progressive leaders with modern teaching methods, is essential for a vibrant academic community in Africa, Amissah concludes.
Foreign grants, such as those provided by the Volkswagen Foundation, are key to enabling researchers to get a top quality education while maintaining ties with their home countries, she says.
But Africa must eventually become sustainable in terms of funding, which will only be possible when governments prioritise higher education, she says.
“Any government that is not looking at the educational system is going to run into problems later on.”

Africa’s young researchers have a long road ahead
This is part of the Africa’s PhD Renaissance series funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
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