Portals give new scope to researchers seeking funds

When he enrolled for a masters degree at the University of Nairobi in Kenya 11 years ago as a self-sponsored student, Alex Riithi had no access to information about scholarships, research funds, grants and fellowships and, as a result, did not consider applying for funding. That situation has now changed with the introduction of a new institutional portal.

While the costs of his masters programme in armed conflict and peace studies were relatively affordable to him as an employee of the Kenyan National Assembly, Riithi said he had no idea that such opportunities for support were available both within and outside Kenya.

In order to address this gap, the university last month became the latest institution to build its own platform, to assist teaching staff and students to access a range of information on available scholarships, grants and research funds. The site is publicly accessible, unlike those databases offered by commercial companies, which are only accessible to authorised university users via a password.

Publicly accessible

The university launched the grants and opportunities portal on 23 December 2018, becoming the second university in Kenya to offer such a platform, after Kenyatta University which has for years maintained a publicly accessible grants database.

Rosemary Omwandho, assistant registrar in the office of the acting deputy vice-chancellor for research, production and extension at the University of Nairobi, said the new open access site will complement information provided by the university's external provider of funding information, Research Africa.

"We have come up with this site to ensure that our researchers learn more about available opportunities more easily. It is a new way of sharing information, including that which is not contained in our subscription portal," she said.

"It is much more than an opportunity site and will serve as a research activities site, carrying information including fellowships and internal research communication," she said in an interview.

Regional developments

It is anticipated that more universities in the region will create their own dedicated grants and opportunities portals, driven in part by the costs of subscribing to commercial sites offering the same service, notwithstanding personnel costs involved in the establishment of an institutional portal.

While companies that include Research Africa, ProQuest, Research Beeline, Pivot and publishing company Elsevier, among others, are of critical importance to researchers and graduate students in helping them identify research funding and other opportunities, they charge an average of US$10,000 for an annual subscription, according to Joseph Njogu, director of Nairobi-based company Research Beeline, which offers subscriptions for access to an international funding database.

As a result, only a few universities in the region subscribe to these services. They include Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Makerere University (Uganda), and in Kenya the University of Nairobi, Strathmore University and the Technical University of Kenya.

According to Patrick Mbataru, a lecturer at Kenyatta University, even where universities do not subscribe to a commercial database, the institutions have sought to ensure that their researchers do not miss out on opportunities, regularly emailing available opportunities to their staff each time they come across them.

Coping strategies

“Different universities have different ways of ensuring their people do not miss out on available funding, even where they don’t maintain an extensive devoted opportunities platform,” he told University World News.

In addition, individual researchers at the region’s 200 universities hunt for funding openings on their own using open-access websites such as the one maintained by Kenyatta University.

According to Njogu, maintaining an institutional database such as those at Kenyatta University and the University of Nairobi could also carry significant costs in terms of personnel required to manage the portal. However, he said that “not helping” scholars to access funding more easily through databases was a disservice to them, particularly early career scientists, who need to produce research in order to earn promotions and grow their careers.