A resurgence of healthcare research is seeing the emergence of a new generation of African researchers.
By Kate Okorie, bird story agency
Goodness Odey had barely completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Calabar in southern Nigeria when the Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunisation (GAVI) featured her research work. Her work shed light on the impact of COVID-19 on period poverty.
Responding to the surprise mention by the world vaccine body, she celebrated her contribution in a long LinkedIn post, writing;
“The work I do is significant. It is making a difference.”
The recognition has continued for the twenty-four-year-old Odey, who joins a wave of fellow African changemakers. Earlier this year, she received the 2022 Diana Award — which celebrates young activists worldwide — and she was chosen to join the Youth Editorial Board of Wiley’s Public Health Challenges Journal.
“It’s been an exciting journey,” Odey admitted.
Her undergraduate study in Public Health, together with her experience volunteering with civil society organisations has greatly influenced her interest in research writing, she explained.
“Gaining knowledge on public health issues is pivotal in understanding the role of research in making informed decisions about health issues at all levels,” she said, crediting her supervisors at Global Health Focus (GHF) and her alma mater with her development in research writing.
The GAVI recognition opened the door for another opportunity. A few months after her work was featured, Odey won the Aspire Institute’s Community Action Award to implement a project to tackle period poverty in her community.
“Certain interventions that I have done at the local level are from my understanding of my research work, which I use as a case to advocate for policy change,” she said.
While a 2007 analysis of Africa’s research output reported that “Africa’s share in worldwide science has steadily declined”, within the last decade the continent has recorded the strongest growth in research production globally, at 38.6 percent.
This progress has been accompanied by a rise in young African researchers contributing, in no small way, to address health challenges at the community level. These efforts have helped to guide healthcare policy development within the continent and globally.
Odey’s generation is a boon to Africa, where many public health challenges require community engagement and political will to solve them.
Innovative research funding has also helped research growth expand beyond the few key universities responsible for much of Africa’s research work and grants.
“As an undergraduate, I published six research papers in peer-reviewed journals, three of which were funded under micro-research grants,” wrote Dr Innocent Arinaitwe, a recent medical graduate of Uganda’s Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST).
“When I returned to campus for a new semester, our vice-chancellor had just won an NIH-funded HEPI-TUITAH grant under which there was a call for research concepts in the field of HIV/AIDS,” Arinaitwe said, talking of his journey into research writing.
“I teamed up with my colleagues and wrote a presentable concept.”
His team’s application got approved, and they received a micro-research grant to conduct a scientific investigation on men living with HIV in rural Uganda. The grant recipients also participated in a series of capacity-building sessions.
“The trainers in these sessions inspired me through their own lived experiences. This started the cascade of writing research projects where I started looking out for opportunities to do more research in HIV, mental health, and health systems,” Arinaitwe said.
Arinaitwe was privileged to attend the recently concluded Global Health Security Conference held in Singapore. Speaking to an audience that comprised key policymakers in global health, he shared the findings from his research on HIV. Also, he expounded on the determinants of successful public health interventions in rural communities.
Undoubtedly, indigenous research institutions play an essential role in helping young African scientists access better opportunities through research workshops, conferences, postgraduate studies, internships, fellowships, grants, and scholarships.
To support young African researchers, the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE) awarded individual grants of up to 50,000 US dollars, targeted primarily at early-career researchers and independent investigators.
“You don’t get research grants unless you have a good research idea and a good proposal,” said Gabriel Oke, an incoming master’s student at Rwanda’s University of Global Health Equity.
In 2021, he received a grant from The Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (RSTMH) to research the state of leprosy settlements in Nigeria.
He shared details about the research progress:
“I’ve submitted the research for peer review publication, but I’m currently working on ways to disseminate my output and carry relevant stakeholders along with the findings. So, they could reference them when making policy documents, recommendations and during thought leadership discussions,” he explained.
Oke has written more than 30 peer-reviewed health articles and blogs and acknowledges that his research may not immediately impact the target population. Still, he is confident that it will serve as evidence in the near future.
But these achievements have not been without challenges.
Recent data shows that African countries commit less than 1 per cent of their GDP to research and development (R&D). The challenge of inadequate funding — especially domestic funding — is a significant barrier to African-led institutions’ capacity to undertake research projects consistently. In the past, this has triggered the relocation of Africa’s best brains to institutions abroad and further deprived young researchers of potential mentors in their field.
“Young people are interested in many research areas but don’t have mentors. Or mentors may be available, but they don’t have access to them,” explained Yusuff Adebayo Adebisi, the Director of Research and Thought Leadership at GHF — an organisation that has developed a successful mentorship model.
A research prodigy — currently ranked among the top 100 in Nigeria — Yusuff strongly believes in mentorship’s impact on a young researcher’s career.
In addition, he suggested that universities should integrate academics with research. Most undergraduates who have made laudable progress in the research field have had to juggle both demands.
“My research journey has been taxing but doable… It has not been easy combining my academics and research writing but what works for me is time management,” said Success David, a final year pharmacy student at the University of Nigeria. David already has seven publications to her name.
The African government’s support for the R&D sector has yet to match the enthusiasm of the continent’s new generation of scientists.
The median age in Africa, a continent of 1.4 billion people, is 19.7 – the youngest population of any continent. This teeming youthful population presents an opportunity for rapid advancement if resources are rightly allocated to support their training and career development.
“Train one person, and then they mentor others,” said Yusuff. As someone who also benefitted from mentorship, he is already paying it forward through his work at GHF. Piggybacking off a Kevin Molloy Fellowship, he plans to establish a Tobacco Harm Reduction research hub in Nigeria — a field in which he has been working since 2019.
This supports the idea that the active players in today’s research institutions are often beneficiaries of such programmes in their early research days.
Similarly, Odey has gone on to mentor other young research enthusiasts and drive female participation in GHF Africa, where she works as the Region Lead – Women in Leadership. She has trained more than 50 women in research writing.
At the beginning of her research career, she worked in male-dominated teams. But she admits that things have taken a turn for the better.
“Now 80 to 90 percent of my research collaborators are females,” she said, adding that her struggle during her early research days motivated her to prioritise female engagement.
“It is not enough for us to say we want to build leaders, critical thinkers, and innovators in research and global health. How are we engaging women? How are the physiological needs of women being prioritised? How is this gender-balanced?” she asked.
With organisations like the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) Fellowship mandating present fellows to nominate at least one female for its next class, things are beginning to look up for African women in research.
SANTHE, through its Diversity and Inclusion Awards (DAIA), covered the cost for a female trainee to travel with her young daughter from Kenya to South Africa so that she could participate in a Biostatistics course. Also, the organisation trained 105 African scientists and contributed 119 peer-reviewed publications within its first five years.
The African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), another African-led institution, has leveraged funding from its international donor partners to support more than 500 Africans to pursue postgraduate studies within the continent.
ACEGID is recognised as the first African-based institution to sequence the COVID-19 viral genome successfully.
There have also been successful government-led efforts like Kenya’s National Research Fund (NRF), which receives 0.8 percent of the country’s GDP to fund research. This brings it closer to the African Union”s benchmark for governments to invest 1 percent of their GDP in R&D.
To tap into Africa’s full potential in research, the government has a role in championing the efforts of existing research institutions.
“We need a new generation of researchers to drive meaningful studies in the continent, and it is important that we invest in them,” Yusuff remarked.
bird story agency