Uganda’s scientists seek greener pastures abroad

The exodus of scientists from Uganda to other African countries is causing growing concern Copyright: SciDev.Net

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As Ugandan scientists move abroad in search of better remuneration, Esther Nakkazi reports that academics and government disagree about the impact of the exodus.

At the beginning of this year, Denis Tumwesigye Kyetere moved from Uganda to Kenya to take over as executive director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).

Kyetere began his career in 1979 as a scientific officer and maize agronomist at Uganda’s Kawanda Research Station, and has since held a number of important posts in the country, being appointed director-general of the National Agricultural Research Organisation in 2006.

His contributions to Uganda’s agricultural sector have been significant. They include leading a team that developed a new maize variety, which accounted for 60 per cent of the country’s maize production during 1999.

So Kyetere’s move to Kenya and the AATF is the latest loss to Uganda of the scientific brains that are needed to help the country solve of its socio-economic challenges.

The exodus of scientists from Uganda to other African countries in search of better working conditions is generating growing concern within the country’s academic community. And the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has indicated that he shares their worries.

But the movement of scientists out of the country is not yet causing concern in all areas of government, and there is little indication of any attempt to change the situation.

Government ‘insensitive’

According to Phenny Birungi, assistant executive director of the National Council for Higher Education, the vice chancellors of both Makerere University and Mbarara University of Science and Technology issued statements last year commenting on this issue.

Denis Kyetere

Kyetere’s move to Kenya and the AATF is the latest loss to Uganda of its top scientific minds


"They have lost many teaching staff, most of whom crossed over to Rwanda," he says, although pointing out that research is needed to confirm whether Uganda’s situation is more serious than elsewhere in Africa.  

Scientists in Uganda blame the exodus of their colleagues on the lack of a good working environment, poor research infrastructure, the unavailability of long-term benefits, and the lack of opportunities for promotion.

They accuse the government of being insensitive to their needs, and in particular of failing to provide decent salaries.

"I am educated, but if I cannot educate my children, do you think I would be happy working in Uganda?" asks Fina Opio, an agricultural scientist working with the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA) in Kampala. "Poor pay is the leading [reason] why scientists leave the country."  

Lowest pay in the region

Paul Nampala, executive secretary of the Uganda National Academy of Sciences (UNAS), says that the many young Ugandan scientists who obtain scholarships to study in leading laboratories abroad represent the cream of the country’s budding scientists.

But after training, he points out, they do not always return to live and work in Uganda, as the laboratories in which they have trained have recognised their talent and encouraged them to stay and be paid a higher salary then they would receive if they went home.

"To be a lecturer at a university [in Uganda] you need to have a PhD, but you are then only rewarded with peanuts," says Eriabu Lugujjo, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Makerere University, where the pay for scientists can be as low as US$600 a month.

Abel Atukwase, an assistant lecturer in the Department of Food Technology at Makerere University, says that his wages are even less than this. "It is not even equivalent to the housing allowance of a Kenyan professor. We have the lowest pay in the region."

Even professors can earn as little as US$1,000 a month, far lower even than their counterparts in other African countries.

"The financial rewards here are more than 20 times those I could earn in Uganda," says Abel Lufafa, an agricultural policy researcher who has worked in Rwanda for six years.

Rwanda is favoured destination

The exodus of educated professionals from Uganda began in the 1970s during the rule of the dictator Idi Amin, when many scientists, doctors and teachers moved to Kenya. The next destinations were countries such as Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Now Ugandan scientists tend to move to South Africa, Rwanda and Southern Sudan. Atukwase said that many of his students and friends have picked Rwanda due to close historical links between the two countries.

Makerere University ICT building

Universities such as Makerere have lost many of their teaching staff


Brekmans Bahizi, vice rector in charge of finance and administration at the Rwanda’s Institute of Legal Practice and Development, said that expatriate professors — many of whom are Ugandans — can earn US$2500 per month in Rwandan universities.

Records from the faculty of engineering at Makerere University show that the faculty lost 17 lecturers in 2010.

Exodus has ‘no impact’

Not everyone, however, agrees that the country has a serious problem. A senior economist at the Ministry of Finance, for example, speaking on condition of anonymity, disagreed that the number of scientists leaving to work in other countries in Africa was a source of concern.

"If Rwanda was a big economy and was absorbing all our doctors, there would be cause for alarm, and we would increase the doctors’ salaries in Uganda," he says. 

"But at present there is no impact [on us]. Rwanda is a small economy, and even Southern Sudan is only nine million people, compared to Uganda’s population of 33 million.

"This government official supports the movement of Ugandan scientists to other African countries, and denies that Uganda is running out of trained professionals. If we were, we would improvise policies that would deal with it, but not through emigration barriers."

Similarly John Chrysostom Muyingo, the minister of state for higher education, describes the situation as "healthy" given the high level of unemployment in the country. "Four hundred thousand Ugandans come out of university annually, but not even 20 per cent of these can [find appropriate work]," he says. "For me as a minister I have no regrets."

Yoweri Museveni

The country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has indicated he is sympathetic to the plight of the country’s scientists


However he also points out that the government is committed to improve the pay of all civil servants. "All salaries will be increased by 15–20 per cent across the board in the next three years in the next budget [in June], and we have been talking of a special allowance for all those engaged in science and technology, wherever they are."

Brain drain or brain circulation?

Some in Uganda prefer to talk of "brain circulation" rather than "brain drain".

"The forces of globalisation are pushing us to serve humanity not just at the national level, but globally. And with improvements in communications technology, one can do this from anywhere on the globe," says Nampala.

"Brain circulation places skills where they are most needed, and therefore most rewarded," says Lufafa. "It also helps someone test their skills in different settings, which leads to professional growth."

Another argument used in favour of ‘brain circulation’ is that since Uganda’s universities produce large number of scientists for whom no government-funded research posts are available, there is a benefit to them working abroad when they graduate, as they then stand a better chance of finding work in the private sector on their return.

"In the modern world, there is nothing wrong with marketing one’s skill across borders," says Nampala. He argues that the relatively high number of scientists in the Ugandan population means that the loss of some cannot be described as a serious brain drain.

Another concern is the so-called "internal brain drain", with qualified Ugandan scientists moving away from science and into other professions due to the shortage of research opportunities.

Many Ugandan graduates who trained as medical doctors or scientists now work in banking, industry, marketing and accounting, or as consultants in service delivery sectors unrelated to their professions.

Museveni has indicated his sympathy with the plight of the country’s scientists. Last year he gave his public support to the argument that scientists should receive higher salaries.

But until government officials, particularly in the Ministry of Finance, adopt the view that scientists need to be paid more if they are to stay and work in the country, the situation is unlikely to change significantly, and the exodus seems set to continue.