• Wednesday, May 22, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Strengthening health research, development capacity: Urgent need for African-led approach

Strengthening health research, development capacity: Urgent need for African-led approach

Although Africa has about 17% of the world’s population with 25% of globally significant diseases, the continent lags significantly behind in knowledge production, producing only about 2.5% of the global research output.

The poor research output on the continent can be attributed to a scarcity of highly trained researchers that can supervise higher degree scholars, poor career progression pathways for scientific researchers, inadequate research infrastructure that provide access to scholarly resources like scientific literature, a lack of supportive services such as administrative support, communication and public engagements and grants, amongst others.

These challenges have resulted in a significant and increasing brain drain in Africa as researchers and academics migrate to other resource-rich countries. Hence, creating a poor research-training environment on the continent, a lack of sustainable research production and limited capacity for Africa to address its overwhelming health challenges.

Africa’s research dependence on the global north

The last decade has seen a notable increase in investment in Africa’s research and development capacity as more African governments have increased funding for scientific research and capacity building at national and regional levels.

However, most of the investment efforts have come from the global North and have been driven by scientists with a limited understanding of the research landscapes and unique challenges on the continent.

It is not uncommon for research projects led by scientists from the global North to turn African researchers into mere programme managers whose scientific focus is shifted to more northern-related scientific studies.

Strengthening sustainable research and development capacity in Africa requires an African/locally-led approach that relies on existing national and regional capabilities

Also, scholarships provided for African scientists to train primarily in the global North have often been deployed to further drain the continent of its most promising scientists and cannot create a critical mass of highly trained, locally networked researchers in Africa.

Therefore, strengthening sustainable research and development capacity in Africa requires an African/locally-led approach that relies on existing national and regional capabilities, and in addition, jointly beneficial global partnerships.

In this way, we will ensure that research priorities are aligned with the needs of the continent and contribute more meaningfully to the advancement of public health.

Benefits of African-led research efforts

Shifting from an internationally-led research approach to more African-led models is beneficial for several reasons. First, African researchers are typically in the best position to lead scientific research agendas that effectively identify and tackle the most relevant local scientific and health challenges through national and international collaborations.

Research findings will also be communicated better in ways that are more applicable to the local population and will have better uptake by African policymakers compared to study results from research that are majorly led by international scientists.

Other important benefits of African-led research include an increase in local ownership of research activities and increased research outputs.

It will also create good opportunities for role modelling, as senior African scientists can serve as role models for junior researchers, increasing skills building and development of local scientists and staff.

Strategies to strengthen health research and development capacity in Africa

Although international collaborations and financial support provide immediate benefits that support Africa’s research capacity, sustainable improvements in research and development on the continent require research capacity building that is led by African citizens who are themselves, stakeholders, in the challenges. This means that African governments need to invest more in health research across the continent.

Read also: How tech firms are growing healthcare business

Key strategies to strengthen health research and development capacity in Africa include:

1. Increasing empowerment of African-based researchers: There is a need to identify and support locally originated and led efforts, particularly among junior researchers who have worthy ideas but are limited by a lack of grant funding. Such capacity-building grants will empower young scientists who are seeking to establish themselves as independent investigators and advance in their careers.

Lots of research funding in health by several African countries happened during this pandemic and should be sustained and even improved upon.

2. Clear identification of Africa research needs and the provision of top-notch training to African scientists: Excellent training programmes that emphasise skills development should be provided on the continent for junior African scientists to direct them to the research needs of the continent.

3. Establishing forums and networks for information exchange and strong collaborations among researchers across Africa: Meaningful engagement platforms both at national and regional levels will allow researchers to exchange ideas, get valuable feedback on their work, and partner on research projects that address critical health problems on the continent.

In all these, the private sector in Africa also plays a crucial role in forming strategic collaborations and providing funding for African-led research on the continent. With the active participation of each stakeholder, sustainable strengthening of research and development capacity in Africa is achievable.

Professor Anyakora is the CEO of Bloom Public Health and a public health expert.

Odibeli is a pharmacist and the Research and Communications Coordinator at Bloom Public Health.