International partnership solution to the bioscience gap

Africa continues to face major socio-economic challenges in its quest to drive economic growth, create employment opportunities and reduce poverty. Scientific advancements can accelerate development across key sectors on the continent, but this would require comprehensive planning, long-term commitment and strategic investments in tertiary education, research capacity building and funding for research and development.

African governments must also lead efforts to reform and transform the tertiary education system into world-class research and teaching institutions that support creative thinking, knowledge exchange, innovation and high productivity.

Presently, many universities and national research institutes in Sub-Saharan Africa lack the infrastructure, technical capacity and financial resources required to conduct world-class research. This chronic impoverishment has created a huge gap in knowledge and has limited the ability of many intelligent students in African tertiary education institutions to compete globally as well as to contribute to their country’s sustainable development.

As an undergraduate science student in Nigeria many years ago, I had my own share of experiences that highlighted these challenges. I studied microbiology at a university that did not have modern teaching or research laboratories. We relied heavily on theory-based learning, mostly using obsolete teaching materials and methods that did not meet the global standard. Having returned to the same university and some others in the region more recently, the problem is still largely the same.

Not a priority

While it is true that development of any sort can take time, it does not seem that science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM-based education and research have been made a priority – at least not just on paper – in the national development agenda of many countries in Africa, especially the Sub-Saharan African region.

The structure of DNA was unravelled by Watson and Crick in 1953, recombinant DNA/cloning technology was discovered in the early 1970s and the polymerase chain reaction technique was invented in 1983. You would have thought that universities in Africa would have incorporated these fundamental molecular biology principles and techniques into their biological science curriculum.

This is the 21st century and many African universities awarding science PhDs do not have the basic laboratory infrastructure required to conduct research that is globally acceptable and, more importantly, that addresses some of the challenges faced in healthcare, agriculture and the environment.

This is contributing to the very low overall contribution of Africa’s global research output (2%), and possibly, the heavy reliance on foreign aid by some parts of Africa.

By 2050, Africa’s population is expected to double to 2.4 billion people. This means there will be more mouths to be fed, diseases to be cured or prevented and new interventions needed to save the environment.

With a chronic shortage of adequate research and training facilities as well as sustainable national funding mechanisms to support high impact research projects, it is difficult to know how African nations plan to produce the number of highly skilled scientists urgently needed to tackle hunger, malnutrition, poverty, disease and environmental degradation.

A model for bioscience education

I had my own share of frustration when I left Nigeria to study at Georgetown University in the United States, and subsequently at Oxford and Cambridge universities in the United Kingdom. However, after realising that just complaining wouldn’t solve the problem, I decided to create a model that could be adopted by universities in Africa to advance knowledge and technical skills in applied biosciences.

In June 2013, I founded the JR Biotek Foundation to help train present and future African scientists in the field of applied biosciences and to promote joined up thinking on Africa’s sustainable development.

The foundation’s goal is to educate, train and empower a new generation of African scientists who are capable of applying their knowledge, skills and ingenuity to improve agricultural productivity, human health, economic development and environmental sustainability in Africa.

We work in partnership with world-leading research institutions to develop good-quality and affordable scientific laboratory training programmes that provide both theoretical and practical learning of important aspects of molecular biology and other biosciences to students, lecturers and researchers in Africa.

We take into account the scarce resources (for example, experimental reagents, consumables, laboratories, etc) in many African universities and we tailor our training programmes to be relevant and adaptable to their own context without giving less or reducing the quality of the training we offer. This makes our laboratory capacity building programme unique and impactful.

We use a two-way train-the-trainer strategy to ensure that we provide world-class training to postgraduate students, academics and researchers who are involved in research and also have teaching responsibilities at their home institutions. We offer this training in Africa and at the University of Cambridge and this allows us to reach more students and researchers who need to learn modern scientific and molecular biology laboratory techniques and their various applications.

In partnership with the department of plant sciences at the University of Cambridge, we bring outstanding PhD students, academics and researchers from universities in Africa to Cambridge to participate in our annual hands-on laboratory training workshop.

The workshop is taught by scientists and research experts from the University of Cambridge. It provides a unique avenue for our trainees to learn from leaders in the field while allowing them to share their own research experiences and make new connections that may lead to regional and international research collaborations.

We work with several partners to make our training programmes affordable and we offer scholarships to outstanding Africa-based PhD students to attend the workshop and gain new knowledge, insight and laboratory skills that will contribute to their personal and professional development.

A positive impact

Our training programme is making a positive difference both at the individual and institutional level. Some of our trainees have introduced simple and very affordable experimental methods learned during our training workshop to their research groups in Africa. A few of them are also organising similar training workshops to train more students in their region.

In addition to our laboratory capacity building programme in molecular biology, I created the African Diaspora Biotech Summit and the Bioinnovation for Africa Pitching Competition.

The summit brings together professionals across different disciplines from Africa and the African diaspora (UK and Europe) to propose practical solutions to the challenges hampering Africa’s sustainable development. The Bioinnovation for Africa pitching competition aims to celebrate innovations made by African scientists to improve lives and systems in Africa.

Both initiatives were launched at the University of Cambridge in April 2017 and they provide a unique platform for scientists from Africa and the diaspora to connect, exchange knowledge and build strong relationships and new research partnerships that could potentially address some of the most pressing challenges faced in Africa.

Carol Ibe is founder of the JR Biotek Foundation and is doing a PhD in plant science at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, where she is a Gates Cambridge Scholar.