Africa’s Medical Scientists Are Struggling To Get Funding To Back Their Research

Written by Staff
scientists
Even though a few African countries are rising up to the challenge of spending on R&D, their efforts remain largely epileptic. The Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research in Cape Town is one of the few in Africa that can do genomic sequencing. Photo: cpgr.org.za/

Even though a few African countries are rising up to the challenge of spending on R&D, their efforts remain largely epileptic.

In 2009, Tsige Gebre-Mariam, professor of pharmaceutics and drug delivery at Addis Ababa University was excited when he discovered a drug to expel worm-like parasites from the human body.

Besides the anti-parasitic drug, Gebre-Mariam also had a breakthrough in the treatments hemorrhoid and eczema and developed a formula from medicinal plants for the treatment of malaria. He had been working on it for 20 years. More than 213 million people were affected by malaria in Africa in 2018, with 380,000 deaths, according to WHO’s World Malaria Report 2019.

But after reaching out to the government and other funders to bankroll the project, he discovered financial support in his country and across continent was still reluctant to translate laboratory findings into locally relevant evidence. “Production in large scale requires substantial investment—cultivation of the plants, extraction facilities and standard production that meets good manufacturing standards,” Gebre-Mariam said, noting that setting up a factory is beyond researcher’s financial capacity. Since then, the discovered medicines have not reached any drug store, even in Addis Ababa.

Like the case of Gebre-Mariam, who also president of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences, limited funding on research and development (R&D), is a challenge for scientists across Africa, significantly hampering innovation. The funding gap is glaring when the continent’s gross expenditure on R&D  of circa 0.5% of GDP is compared to the global average of 2.2% and the OECD average of 2.3%.

Even though a few African countries are rising up to the challenge of spending on R&D, their efforts remain largely epileptic. Africa has fewer than 1% of patents on earth. This implies that their findings are hardly converted into workable solutions even when money is spent on research.

Against this backdrop, for decades now many African scientists have been forced to leave their home countries to work abroad where there is better funding. Even when they go overseas just for training, they are often reluctant to return home upon completion after working in well-equipped ultra-modern laboratories and in conducive environments.