My colleagues in the United States considered it madness that in 1998, with a PhD from Harvard University, I returned to Cameroon to research malaria at a time when the country's economy was at its lowest point.
Their concern stemmed from the fact that Africa had little scientific and technological capacity — a challenge that malaria researchers, and other scientists, still face today.
Several factors are key to scientific development. Identifying research priorities is one, and malaria is clearly one of these. Equally important are well-trained and well-managed research teams.
But, faced with rising debt, struggling healthcare systems and food shortages, many African governments rank scientific research — even for a disease of such magnitude as malaria — low on their list of priorities.
This lack of support means that researchers often battle with basic infrastructure problems such as frequent power cuts and poor access to water and electricity.
Scientific progress is also hard to maintain in the face of the political instability and civil unrest that are all too dominant in some African countries.
All these factors must be addressed if Africa is to build the capacity to carry out its own research into malaria and other diseases.
Testing for presence of chloroquine
Photo Credit: IRD/BUSCO
What is holding Africa back?
One reason why African science is stalling is the relative lack of management training. Africans with doctorates often have little or no leadership experience, yet soon find themselves in charge of entire teams.
These team leaders must compete for international research funding with much more experienced scientists from around the world. But those who do secure a Western grant face another problem: the envy of colleagues struggling with their own meagre funding. The enormous discrepancy in funding between local and foreign grants can cause great friction among scientists working in the same department. Many of the 'lucky' grant recipients feel ostracised by their peers.
Working in this excessively competitive environment hampers many scientists, and few are able to sustain long-term research projects.
Another problem is that many funding organisations tend to specify that African researchers cannot use grants to supplement salaries. In recognition of the problems that this can cause in a field such as malaria research, some organisations, such as the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria and the Gates Malaria Partnership of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, have agreed to help fund salaries as well. But these are exceptions.
Faced with these difficulties, scientists join the brain drain to the West for more money. Those who remain in Africa are under enormous pressure to make enough money to support extended families that depend on them. Indeed, the pressure is often so great that researchers desert their positions in favour of better paying government administration jobs, even leaving fields such as malaria research, where their scientific skills are sorely needed.
Asking the right questions
Research has two driving forces: the quest for basic knowledge, and the need to use scientific understanding to improve our lives. Researchers in Africa need to be trained to know how to ask the right questions.
They also need to decide which line of research will meet a particular need or development goal, particularly when dealing with a disease as complicated as malaria. But research should not be steered only towards practical goals, such as developing drugs or vaccines. African researchers need to find a balance between basic and applied research.
Having defined the questions, researchers also need to understand effective grant management — in other words, being able to budget. Most institutions in developed countries offer researchers guidance on this.
Most African institutions, however, have nothing that even approaches this.
The importance of teamwork
Teamwork is as critical in malaria research as in other fields. But Africans often prefer to become individual specialists rather than work as a team. Scientists in Africa can often focus on their own success rather than train their successors. Senior researchers frequently regard visionary junior colleagues as too ambitious. These are short-sighted attitudes: being the only success story does not lead to progress.
Furthermore, even when working on malaria, which has such a wide impact on our societies, African scientists can be poor communicators, whether to students, other researchers, policymakers or the public. Most hoard knowledge until it is obsolete, failing to publish their results. The exceptions are a few who collaborate with partners in developed countries and publish in reputable journals.
To develop capacity for malaria research in Africa, researchers must now strive to develop complementary skills and knowledge across the continent, and create multidisciplinary teams at both the national and regional level. This means networking.
Although networks of researchers are multiplying across Africa, they are far from adequate. They treat each other with suspicion, and many simply duplicate each other's efforts. Some degree of basic trust needs to be established, and some sacrifices must be made, in the interest of tackling malaria effectively. Here, as in other fields, Africans need to engage in real collaboration.
African institutions also need to avoid becoming places for 'safari' scientists from the West to exploit simply to collect samples. Some centres of excellence in Africa have had strong partnerships with institutions outside Africa, and these have continued to excel. In the field of malaria research these include: the Malaria Research and Training Centre in Bamako, Mali and the Post-graduate Institute for Malaria Research and Training in Nigeria.
Other notable centres are the Kenyan Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) in Nairobi; the Noguchi Institute for Medical Research in Ghana; the Ifakara Centre for Research and Development in Tanzania; and the Medical Research Council laboratories in the Gambia.
However, such centres are difficult to create. Institutions in the West are reluctant to help develop new ones, partly because they require enormous resources both to create and, even more importantly, to maintain. Furthermore no sooner are new centres identified and supported by minor financiers, such as the World Health Organization, as a target for funding than they can become overwhelmed by attention from larger donors.
As a result, some may move within a period of years from minor grants to huge institutional awards. But these burgeoning institutes are seldom able to absorb the money effectively, and thus fail to deliver the goods.
Moving research forward
During their training, African malaria researchers should learn to manage several commitments simultaneously. Researchers need to be good managers of time and resources — knowing when to say yes or no to new proposals is a useful skill. They must also learn to resist becoming embroiled in the politics that can govern science.
It is also crucial for malaria researchers to learn to communicate their work. They must learn how and when to share knowledge to aid development. They must learn to talk to parliamentarians, as well as garner public support for their work.
Being the head of a research team requires extra effort and sacrifice. Knowing when to save and invest, and ensuring there is money for transitional periods between two grants, is vital for keeping the group afloat. The team leader must also learn how to select and purchase equipment that does not quickly become obsolete.
Until Africa's malaria researchers understand the benefits of teamwork and effective leadership, the continent will not be able to even begin to address the challenges of malaria and other devastating diseases that hinder its development.
Wilfred Mbacham is associate professor of public health and biotechnology at the Biotechnology Centre, University of Yaounde I, Cameroon. He is the manager of the MIM-TDR Anti-malaria Drug Resistance Network, and the coordinator for the Fourth MIM Pan-African Conference on Malaria, held in Cameroon, November 2005. The views in this article are his own.