Who understands Africa’s pains better than Africans? Africans, but that is the easy part

"With our research productivity at 2% of global output, we have much work in front of us"

WHO understands Africa’s challenges better than Africans? This is a question that permeates all levels of government, society and academia, yet answers are still too often sought - or suggested - from outside of the continent.

Despite the rise of the African voice and influence over domestic matters, it is not uncommon for the clamour from international development agencies, financial institutions and civil society bodies to dominate discourse on what Africa could or should be doing.

International assistance and guidance are not undesirable, but there is little doubt that African nations are most acutely aware of the challenges and how to deal with them.

This was illustrated to a certain extent at the recent Africa Universities Summit in Johannesburg recently when the Times Higher Education (THE) released its inaugural ranking of African universities. 

Admittedly, the preliminary ranking was based solely on field weighted citation impact, with the authors stressing that the results were more a snapshot of findings than a comprehensive study comparable with their annual global universities ranking.

Despite vocal criticism of this list of Africa’s “top 30 universities”, THE’s rankings editor Phil Batty pointed out that studies showed that international collaborative research was more highly cited and influential.

The extent to which continental universities were taking advantage of collaboration was revealed by Josie Stallinga of Elsevier during the Summit’s final panel discussion on opportunities for partnerships and collaboration.

Citing a 2014 report on collaboration within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field, she said that international collaboration by institutions far outweighed inter-regional research collaboration.

Dominated by international efforts

International efforts were led by Southern Africa (79%) followed by East Africa (68%) and then West and Central Africa (42%), with South Africa alone producing between 40% and 50% of collaborative outputs.

Inter-regional co-operation pales in comparison: once South African and international collaborative research are removed from the mix, joint research in Southern Africa falls to 2.9%, East Africa to 2% and West and Central Africa to 0.9%.

Despite these low figures, Stalinga said the report showed that research outputs had more than doubled over the past decade, rising by more than 10% year on year.

“Clearly, health sciences are a huge trend in Africa in research,” she said. “One thing to consider is to think about how to bring the STEM areas up to where health is now. Especially if the priority is to advance technology-driven innovation.

“We know that publications that have some kind of collaboration have a greater impact, and we know that Africa relies heavily on visiting professors and international collaborations. Those are often very impactful and are rightly connecting to other places in the world, but a theme that came up over the past two days is that there is relatively lower pan-African collaboration. One key take-away for us is to think about how to encourage that further.”

The extent of the international focus within West Africa was highlighted by Ousman Sène, director of the West African Research Centre, who said that despite being a regional body it was heavily focused on collaboration with US-based institutions.

Focus on common issue

Eugéne Cloete, vice-rector for research and innovation at Stellenbosch University, suggested one way to encourage pan-African collaboration was to consider common areas requiring attention. These, he suggested, could be summarised as water, energy, agriculture, land, technology and health.

“Take any one of these elements away and you are poor in one way or another. So if we could develop an index per country on how they are measured on these six issues, we will get an idea where development could take place,” he said. “This informs no only our strategy at Stellenbosch University but also our interactions with the rest of the continent.”

He explained that the university currently collaborates with 23 other African countries, with around 300 research projects in these research fields.

While co-operating around common issues is sensible, University or Pretoria’s vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey suggested from the audience that a reason for lower pan-African collaboration could be explained in the South African model of rating researchers on individual performance.

She intimated that a system that conferred stature and reputation tended to skew collaboration with more high profile institutions abroad.

Countering this view, and indicating that introducing such a researcher rating systems across the continent may in fact promote collaboration, was panel chair Thandi Mgwebi of South Africa’s National Research Foundation.

“The NRF is working in partnership with other funding agencies in other African countries and there has been a request to introduce the rating system. The intention is to start with a few in the next year or so, but also to tailor those per country,” she explained.

In closing the two-day summit, host vice-chancellor Iron Rendsburg appealed to delegates to stay true to the declaration from the recent Dakar conference to increase collaboration, particularly through the creation of continent-wide centres of excellence.

“With our research productivity at 2% of global output, we have much work in front of us. We know that 40% of that research output is in clinical medicine and related areas, so we need to expand that research footprint. It brings us back to one of the big ideas, that reciprocal continental research partnerships must be one of the bases upon which we move African universities forward.

“Our current national and university paradigm, I suggest, is short-term and short-sighted. That is an uncomfortable truth. It’s unnecessarily highly competitive, and resources are concentrated in far too few nations and institutions.

“In this drive to be at the top of the pile in the research rankings, research development outweighs investment in under-graduate education. And an inter-dependent Africa requires Africa scale, combined co-operative innovations and solutions. So we must infinitely multiply global and pan-African partnerships.”

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