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Africa has quality research and development (R&D) capacity but its distribution is uneven and collaboration across the continent remains poor, according to a study.

Researchers in Tunisia and Switzerland assessed Africa's biomedical research landscape as part of the development of the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics Innovation (ANDI) — a network that aims to boost African health research through increased funding.

They built a database of peer-reviewed biomedical research articles that featured at least one African author from 2004–2008. Around 2,700 institutions in 47 of Africa's 53 countries were identified that had produced articles published in peer-reviewed journals indicating that "quality R&D capacity exists in the continent".

But the distribution of this capacity is uneven: only three African countries — Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa — were represented among the 20 most productive institutions. And the authors added that "portions of Western and Central Africa are lagging behind".

The researchers also looked at collaborative activity across the continent. Seventy-seven per cent of articles in their database were authored in collaboration but just five per cent of these comprised collaborations among institutions in more than one African country. Most collaborations were undertaken with Europe and the United States.

"While the extra-African collaboration should be encouraged, the lack of intra-African collaboration suggests that African institutions do not have adequate leadership and ownership of the research being done in the continent," the authors said.

"The sustainability of research undertaken in Africa may also be an issue, especially when it is undertaken with short-term funds coming from, and directed from, external sources."

The researchers say that "robust African-based funding mechanisms" are urgently needed to complement the current funding streams — most of which come from outside the continent. This is further highlighted by the figures — Africa spent just 0.3 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D in 2002, compared with the global 1.7 per cent.

ANDI has a key role to play in this, argued the researchers.

"The establishment of ANDI as a functional and successful organisation located in Africa — managed and governed by African institutions, implementing product R&D, and ensuring sustainable access to new drugs and diagnostics innovations — will help fill the gaps identified in this work."

These gaps include "deficient investment in product R&D within Africa; a lack of collaboration among African scientists and between the African public and private sector; and poor awareness of the link between research and economic development".

Link to full article in PLoS Medicine