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African academics are to be given a total of £30 million (US$49 million) to spend on seven large North–South partnerships to boost health research capacity in their continent.

The partnerships, funded under the Wellcome Trust's African Institutions Initiative, were unveiled today (2 July) at the World Conference of Science Journalists in London, United Kingdom.

They aim to revitalise the continent's cash-starved universities by helping them forge close links with better-resourced institutions in Africa and elsewhere to address deficiencies in research training, access to equipment and academic jobs.

"It is essential that the best and brightest researchers have access to training opportunities and career pathways in their home countries," says Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust.

The partnerships involve researchers from 24 countries, including 18 African nations. Of the African countries, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda have won the most partnerships, with four each.

Many of partnerships have a regional dimension, such as the Southern Africa Consortium for Research Excellence; Training Health Researchers into Vocational Excellence in East Africa and the Research Institute for Infectious Diseases of Poverty in West Africa.

Funding will also go to the Strengthening Research Capacity in Environmental Health Partnership; the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA); the One Medicine Africa–UK Research Capacity Development Partnership Programme for Infectious Diseases in Southern Africa (SACIDS) and the African Research Consortium for Ecosystem and Population Health: Expanding Frontiers in Health.

The initiative is part of a Wellcome Trust drive to give funding recipients in developing countries more control over projects.

To avoid priorities being set by the North, the partnerships are all led by researchers from African institutions. Even within Africa, the leadership role was not necessarily given to the most prominent institute. For example, Tanzania's renowned Ifakara Health Centre is a member of SACIDS but the partnership is led by a researcher from the country's Sokoine University of Agriculture.

"The leadership of these different consortia is not the usual suspects," says Jimmy Whitworth, head of international activities at the Wellcome Trust.

Alex Ezeh, director of CARTA and executive director of the African Population and Health Research Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, says that the African Institutions Initiative is "truly innovative" by placing African academics in charge.

Many development projects in Africa set capacity-building as a deliverable, he says. But they do not achieve the desired effect because the continent's academics have not "owned" the problem.

"Unless African scholars and institutions own the problem of weakening capacity in the region and identify what they must do differently, we are unlikely to see significant change," he adds.