African scientists say more needed to keep brightest at home

March 11, 2016 by Jennifer O'mahony
Senegal President Macky Sall (L) delivers a speech in Dakar during the opening of the "Next Einstein Forum" (NEF) on M
Senegal President Macky Sall (L) delivers a speech in Dakar during the opening of the "Next Einstein Forum" (NEF) on March 8, 2016

Is Africa ready to take on the war against malaria, HIV, Ebola and the like? Not yet, said some of the continent's brightest scientific minds at a landmark gathering this week in Senegal.

Researchers at the cutting edge of international vaccine and public health research told AFP at the first gathering of the ambitious "Next Einstein Forum" for Africa that their academic success stories remained exceptional—though the landscape is changing.

"If I'd remained in Cameroon I'd never have got where I am, so at a relatively early stage I identified what I really wanted to do and I had to leave the country," said Wilfred Ndifon, whose mathematical approach to designing vaccines has brought him international acclaim.

Ndifon's skill with numbers and determination to eradicate disease that afflicted those around him as a child, led him to a scholarship abroad and a PhD from Princeton after he realised he could reach more people through science than as a medical doctor.

His work on a general principle for innoculation is now being used to develop a comprehensive malaria vaccine, but he says young Africans who want to take a similar path would still likely require time abroad to develop their skillset.

"The kind of education I got... a lot of it was informal, with a lot of like-minded people doing curiosity-driven research," he said. Attracting the brightest minds and giving them the space to think would require a sea change in African universities, he added.

Wilfrid Ndifon's work on a general principle for innoculation is now being used to develop a comprehensive malaria vaccine
Wilfrid Ndifon's work on a general principle for innoculation is now being used to develop a comprehensive malaria vaccine

Higher education participation in sub-Saharan Africa remains the lowest in the world, meaning the pipeline of scientists and technology professionals remains tiny in terms of the region's needs.

Although private universities are booming, government investment remains well under one percent of GDP across sub-Saharan Africa, compared with rates of around 1.0-3.5 percent in Western Europe and the United States.

Researchers said countries experiencing stronger comparative economic growth such as Rwanda, Nigeria and Ethiopia had a duty to start investing in this area.

Commitments to science would help countries become "capable of solving their own problems," said Mohlopheni Jackson Marakalala, just back from four years of research at Harvard's School of Public Health.

The University of Cape Town lecturer attended the forum before embarking on a major research project into tuberculosis, which still kills 1.5 million people annually.

Marakalala's university experience in South Africa, home to sub-Saharan Africa's most respected institutions, was marked by gaps in funding and technology he feels must be addressed if the continent is to compete on the world stage.

In the west "you start with good money, the right equipment," he said.

Senegal President Macky Sall (R) delivers a speech under a map of Africa in Dakar during the opening of the "Next Einstein Forum" (NEF) on March 8, 2016

In his line of work, Africa does offer some advantages.

"To have access to clinical material (tuberculosis-infected tissues) is a tool that can actually address very complex questions," he said. "It's a dream for scientists in the US or Europe."

But when a crisis strikes, such as the recent Ebola outbreak, disease samples in the early stages had to be shipped outside Africa to be tested, delaying results.

"Africa was caught unprepared," he added.

There are signs of change, however: Rwanda's laptop programme for schoolchildren was a bright spot for budding scientists on the continent, Marakalala said.

Cameroon's Ndifon meanwhile cited the work of the Pasteur Institute in Senegal as a successful African venture already performing at a world-class level for its work on the ground in Ebola-affected countries.

Systems not gadgets

Beyond the level of institutions, Africa also faces structural and environmental issues holding back its would-be Nobel laureates.

Travelling within Africa for example is costly, time-consuming, and more likely to require a visa for an African than an outsider.

This is "a huge barrier to accessing information and sharing ideas physically", said Nigeria's Tolu Oni, whose work focuses on why HIV-positive patients in South Africa are also more likely to have diabetes.

Raising Ebola's legacy again, she said more prosaic reforms were required than the mobile apps and tablet-based solutions excitedly put forward by US scientists last year.

"We are so obsessed with gadgets and it's so much sexier to focus on that than health systems, but actually that is what you need," Oni said.

"The components of the health system and the service delivery, the leadership in government, the human resources, the financing and communications—those are the building blocks."

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