[CAPE TOWN] African chemistry is booming, according to scientists who gathered this week at a conference in Johannesburg from across the continent to kick off the International Year of Chemistry 2011 (IYC2011).
The past decade has seen growth in African chemistry, fuelled in particular by the classification and investigation of natural products, according to James Darkwa, who chaired the Chemistry — the Key to Africa's Future conference (16–21 January).
But, despite the recent boom in African chemistry with several continental and regional networks springing up, sustainable funding for research and maintenance of laboratory equipment remains a big challenge, SciDev.Net heard on the sidelines of the conference.
Alejandra Palermo, international projects manager at the UK's Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), told SciDev.Net that a particular challenge is maintaining and accessing laboratory equipment, as there is a lack of engineers, spare parts and chemicals.
And Darkwa, a chemistry professor at the University of Johannesburg told SciDev.Net that sustainable funding for chemists remains a challenge.
However, Darkwa said that the new chemistry networks could now help bring these issues to the attention of African policymakers and help chemists collaborate on finding solutions.
Members of one such network, the Pan Africa Chemistry Network (PACN), told SciDev.Net there were several success stories since its launch in 2007.
Jean Claude Ndom from the University of Douala, Cameroon, was sponsored by PACN and the São Paulo Research Foundation for a two-month research fellowship in the Brazilian capital, which resulted in several long-standing collaborations.
"PACN is not only bringing together African chemists but also chemists around the world," he said.
Meanwhile, the Chemical Society of Nigeria has received 2,000 books through PACN, said Yilkur Lohdip, the society's external relations officer, and travel grants and networking meetings have been popular.
PACN has also identified centres of excellence to act as regional training and research hubs.
"This is the right way to get African chemists on the world map of chemistry," said Anthony Gachanja, professor of chemistry at one of the excellence centres — Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya.
Another network, the Botswana-based Southern and Eastern Africa Network of Analytical Chemists, has helped chemists communicate their research findings and identify colleagues on the continent, according to Darkwa.
"The network allows people who don't have resources to go to labs that are better equipped," he said.
The conference was part of the 40th South African Chemical Institute convention and the third meeting of the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry, where chemists examined sustainable use of chemistry for development and better research links on the continent.
It was also the first in a series of worldwide events that mark IYC2011 — an initiative campaigned for mainly by Ethiopian chemists — which will be formally launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris next week (27–28 January).