AFRICA: Lateral thinking for research funding

Last month African exporters learned that it is bad business to put all your eggs in one basket. As the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud grounded flights to Europe, pineapples in Ghana and roses in Kenya rotted in warehouses and workers were told to stay at home. The lesson also applies to Africa's academics.

At a meeting in South Africa, university administrators were told that their traditional sources of funding - government grants and student fees - are under pressure in the current economic climate.

Speakers at the third congress of the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) in Cape Town from 11-15 April said that to guard against financial squeezes ahead, African academics must learn to tap other funding streams.

But a more diverse funding base will also increase the pressure on institutions to boost their internal management - or external forces could end up taking control of their research agendas.

The challenge then is how to raise money for their own research priorities, and the INORMS meeting provided much food for thought.

Looking overseas for funds

International funding programmes offer significant opportunities to finance African research but tend to be under-used by local academics, the meeting heard.

Examples of these include the 33 million Euro (around US$44 million) EU grant programme targeting African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) low-income countries, and grants offered by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"We have a number of funding instruments that are not taken up. Maybe it is to do with limited capacity; maybe opportunities are badly marketed," Mmboneni Muofhe, chief director of international resources at South Africa's Department of Science and Technology, told the INORMS meeting.

Many African academics lack the resources and know-how to jump through the administrative hoops presented by competitive international grants, he said. But most funders will offer help with the application process to those that ask for it, he added.

Local industry and consultancy

Another untapped source of funding is local industry - not just large conglomerates (although these may offer the most lucrative contracts) but also small community businesses.

The notion that all African farmers are poor and cannot afford to pay for knowledge is false, said Bassirou Bonfoh, general director of the Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques in Côte D'Ivoire.

His institute is being paid US$6,000 by a woman in the north of the country who harvests shea seeds to make shea butter, an ingredient in chocolates and beauty creams. The woman, who recently received a large order from a European company, wants the institute's help to improve the quality of her produce.

"We don't think of the community - but if we speak to them we can get funding," said Bonfoh.

Consultancy services provide a third income stream, according to Jose Ariyappillil Mathai, director of postgraduate studies at the National University of Rwanda. His university set up an office in 2007 to manage its staff's consultancy work, and it receives 20% of the consultancy fees, with academics getting the rest. The mechanism has boosted researchers' salaries by 30%.

Easing the administrative burden

But each new funding stream adds to the challenge of keeping tabs on research activities. Where international funding dominates, the need for researchers to report and liaise with donors can overshadow the need to report to their own institution.

Likewise, a surfeit of consultancy contracts can starve an institution of fundamental, curiosity-driven research.

Indeed, many African research institutions struggle to drive their own research. The National University of Rwanda used to be one of these, says Mathai, but things changed in 2006 when a new vice-chancellor decided to take back control. Now donors meet with the university's management every year to discuss the direction of funding programmes.

The good news is that international donors increasingly recognise that as well as funding research projects they must also strengthen the administrative and leadership capacity of African research institutes.

Hannah Akuffo, head of the research secretariat at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), says her organisation now includes money for capacity building in all aspects of their research funding. Others - including the Wellcome Trust, the NIH and even the European Union - are also making it a priority.

In time, such support could halt the common practice of asking African research institutions to join international projects late, as low-priority partners, with little say over the content.

But for things to truly change, African institutions must also actively take more control over their research agendas, says Akuffo. "It's up to them to say 'no' to projects where their signatures are sought just to fulfill grant conditions."

* This article, "Africa Analysis: Lateral thinking for research funding" , by Linda Nordling, was first published by on 30 April 2010. It is reproduced under creative commons licence.