RISE: Strengthening higher education in Africa

It may be early days for the Regional Initiative in Science and Education, but RISE has already helped to strengthen higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Before the end of its first round of funding some students have jobs, others have published papers in journals and the initiative's major output is soon-to-graduate MSc and PhD students.

For the first time since its establishment in 2008 the project, which is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, recently brought together students, academics, administrators and government representatives from its five member network to share experiences and nurture closer collaboration between African universities.

The five RISE member networks - African Materials Science and Engineering Network; African Natural Products Network; Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products; Sub-Saharan Africa Water Resources Network; and Western Indian Ocean Regional Initiative in Marine Science and Education - met from 5-8 October in Johannesburg.

Professor Philip Griffiths, chairperson of the Princeton-based Science Initiative Group or SIG, an international team of science leaders dedicated to fostering science in developing countries, which championed the creation of RISE, said the aim of the meeting was to bring regional initiatives and governments together.

"We wanted all the groups involved to meet and talk about what they are doing and what they can do," Griffiths told University World News.

Griffiths said invitations to the meeting were extended to a number of academics and researchers with an interest in building science and technology innovation capacity in Africa.

RISE, with its US$800,000 funding for each member network, is on course to increase numbers of qualified faculty members in Africa's universities, including upgrading the qualifications of existing faculty.

The RISE networks include 13 universities and two research institutes in nine African countries.

Professor John Kabasa, director of East Africa's African Natural Products Network, said his initiative has enhanced inter- and intra-university collaborations in the region while deepening public-private sector collaborations on teaching, research, extension, service and internships, which is contributing to career growth, promotions and staff retention.

Kabasa, a dean of veterinary studies at Makerere University in Uganda, reported they have 22 students (11 PhDs and 11 MSc students) under mentorship.

The African Natural Products Network's mandate is to develop Africa's rich biodiversity into a natural products industry through course work, research in engineering, environmental science, pharmacology and nutrition.

Denis Hughes of the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University in South Africa, who heads the Sub-Saharan Africa Water Resources Network (SSAWRN), said all the student projects that are part of the initiative are progressing satisfactorily.

SSAWRN tackles water issues, including rising demand, declining quality, insufficient research and teaching capacity, and inadequate observation networks.

Hughes said his students attended a thesis writing course during 2010 and there has been notable improvement.

"Some students have managed to attract co-funding from a variety of sources," added Hughes.

Professor Jane Morris, who heads Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products (SABINA), said they are aiming to produce 10 PhDs and eight MSc graduates by the end of 2013.

SABINA is researching natural products with the potential to increase food security and public health, with increased emphasis on the chemistry and biochemistry of such products.

SABINA has also managed to acquire European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries' funding of EUR945,000 (US$1,317,000), and co-funding from South Africa's national Department of Science and Technology.

Morris said the development of a knowledge management system for SABINA - Virtual Research Environment, which currently links the University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) - is on trial before roll out.

As a result of its RISE involvement, SABINA has trained mentors and students in research methodology, project management, research fund management and grant writing.

Morris, a biotechnology researcher, commended the cadre of doctoral and MSc students for their active research participation.

Four MSc students under SABINA are expected to complete their studies in the first half of 2011, with two proceeding to PhD studies in the second phase of funding.

Morris revealed that joint degree programmes between institutions in the network are being discussed.

Lesley Cornish, director of the African Materials Science and Engineering Network (AMSEN), said at least 20 faculty members were nominated for the materials initiative.

"One student has been made a staff member at the University of Nairobi and two staff members promoted at the same university," said Cornish, an alloy developer for over 25 years.

Cornish reported projects were well under way, with most students performing well, submitting reports and writing up their work.

One AMSEN student, Ayodeja Apata, won the second prize at the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering Poster Day at Wits in November 2009. And three students succeeded in getting their first research paper, on chemical treatment of sisal fibre, published in the Journal of Minerals and Materials Characterization and Engineering.

More equipment is said to be in the pipeline for the University of Namibia and the Federal University of Technology in Akure, Nigeria, which are also nodes of AMSEN.

The Western Indian Ocean Regional Initiative in Marine Science and Education (WIO-RISE), led by Dr Maggie Kyewalyanga of the University of Dar es Salaam's Institute of Marine Sciences, has been providing research and training in skills associated with the use and protection of coastal and marine environments.

Kyewalyanga, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences in Tanzania, drew attention to the many researchers who are in need of bursary support. She said continued funding would provide impetus for the region's first postdoctoral fellowship in marine sciences.

The RISE projects are nearing the end of their two-and-a-half year periods to implement thematic science and engineering initiatives. Thereafter follows the second phase of funding, another three-year term to see current students through their degrees and to recruit further students.

The conference became an opportunity for some of the more than 80 students supported under RISE to present on their research.

Arlen Hastings, SIG director, told University World News they were pleased with the support shown by universities and the fact that they have accepted the role of assisting one another.

SIG chair Griffiths, a renowned mathematician, said he was cautiously optimistic that the grant for funding would be renewed and they were in talks with other possible funders so that they could support the growth and sustainability of RISE.

"Major issues are faced in Africa. Many of them need science and scientists to be resolved. The continent has good capacity to utilise its broad expertise and we can only assist to make that possible," said Griffiths.