RWANDA: Building research capacity from within

The Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa, CARTA, aims to foster multidisciplinary research capacity in population and public health by teaming African universities, African research institutes and northern partners. One of the latest universities to join the consortium is the National University of Rwanda, where CARTA was officially launched on 31 March this year.

The consortium, which brings together nine academic and four research institutions from East, West, Central and Southern Africa, and selected partners from the north, is led jointly by the African Population and Health Research Center in Kenya and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa, who have a five-year history of successful collaboration.

The objective is to foster development of vibrant and viable research hubs at universities through providing collaborative doctoral training programmes in public and population health, and faculty and staff training programmes, while strengthening institutional infrastructure to support rigorous research.

As the African Population Health Research Center website explains, CARTA higher education and research institute members "represent a balanced mix and include established universities with a history of producing PhD graduates in public and/or population health; promising universities aspiring to develop multidisciplinary PhD programmes and research agendas and committed to building their institutional capacity; [and] established, well-managed African research institutions with long-standing research programmes able to nest PhD students and host post-doctoral fellows."

The CARTA representative in Rwanda, Professor Jose A Mathai, said: "Our main objective is strengthening the postgraduate research and training centres in Rwanda." The initiative is beginning at the National University of Rwanda (NUR).

Mathai explained that the university aims to start postgraduate programmes in most disciplines, with the intention of training students locally instead of sending them abroad, which costs the country dearly, given exchange rates.

Discussing the anticipated benefits of participating in the consortium, the university's Vice-rector (academic), Professor Martin O'Hara, cited the case of 150 staff who had trained or were still undergoing training outside Rwanda. The training is expensive and in some cases Africa loses staff who, after their training, pursue jobs overseas.

"We are still sending far too many of our colleagues away to other countries for training; it is time that this kind of activity came home. I think the CARTA consortium is a very well thought through strategy to help achieve that goal," said O'Hara.

The university's goal of training Rwandans at PhD level will be boosted by participation in the consortium, given CARTA's priorities. NUR has started multiple masters programmes, with PhD programmes in the pipeline. Mathai said that the university had already extended its support to PhD training by submitting a list of senior staff willing to supervise PhD students, and had seen a good response from academics.

O'Hara stressed the need for NUR to strengthen human resources by joining hands with other universities and research institutions to promote higher education in Africa.

Indeed, other benefits that the university anticipates from the consortium include meeting its staff requirements in all fields through exchange programmes, having research projects with expertise located regionally, and strengthening library and communication infrastructure.

PhD candidate Alex Habiyaremye expressed support for the CARTA initiative as being set to enhance the quality of PhD training. In terms of the innovative training model, instead of relying solely on thesis-based doctoral studies, CARTA PhD candidates will also have to participate in joint advanced seminars and be supervised by at least two professors.

The consortium intends hosting a series of joint advanced seminars for cohorts of doctoral students admitted and registered in the participating African universities. Both the development and delivery of these courses will be led jointly by regional and international experts. The seminars will comprise didactic sessions, discussions, demonstrations and practice labs.

Asked how CARTA will collaborate with the university and how it intends fulfilling its objectives of contributing to science, informing policy decisions and strengthening research capacity in Rwanda, Mathai exlained that CARTA will seek to "produce cohorts of networked, skilled and motivated young scientists who are able to reproduce the training model at their home institutions."

He continued: "CARTA aims at promoting health and development in Africa by fostering multidisciplinary research hubs at Rwandan universities; facilitating high-quality research on policy-relevant priority issues; creating networks of locally-trained internationally recognised scholars; and enhancing the capacity of Rwandan universities to lead globally-competitive research and training programmes."

On the launch of the consortium at the Rwandan university, a CARTA committee was set up, to popularise the initiative on campus as well as to screen PhD applications at university level before they are sent on to consortium headquarters.

The CARTA committee consists of the director of research, the director of quality, the university librarian, deans of faculties and senior academics who are experts in their fields. The director of postgraduate programmes acts as the contact person for all of the consortium-related activities at the university.