Low number of scholars impedes regional economic growth

Sub-Saharan Africa will struggle to catch up with the rest of the world in economic expansion due to its comparatively low contribution to research and innovation, according to speakers at the recent Young Scholars in Africa Conference hosted by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

“Africa produces alarmingly few junior scientists and other young scholars. This is contrary to most countries’ political and economic aspirations to become middle-income and knowledge societies,” DAAD President, Professor Margret Wintermantel, told the gathering.

At least 150 participants from 23 African countries and Europe, most of them former recipients of DAAD scholarships, attended the meeting in Nairobi from 1-3 March aimed at finding avenues to overcome the challenges facing young African scholars and at promoting scholarly careers.


One of the major factors inhibiting growth in research is the relatively small budget allocation to research and development by national governments. At 0.5%, expenditure on research and development in the region is far below the world average of 1.68%, according to DAAD figures.

Of this funding, the government bears the biggest share of research and development expenditure in the region. However, over the past few years, a growing number of countries such as Kenya and Senegal are tapping foreign sources for their research and development spending. South Africa has a comparatively high proportion funded by the business sector.

In the Sub-Saharan region, research output is dominated by natural science subjects with health sciences forming the largest share, while social sciences (including arts and humanities) and life sciences take the smallest share.

“Government funding for higher education in general is under strain, with institutions prioritising funding for their undergraduate provision. The proportions of university budgets allocated to research and PhD provision are low,” according to a DAAD paper tabled at the conference.

“Consequently, departments and doctoral schools do not normally offer paid studentships to PhD researchers.”

As such, a majority of students are self-funding, relying primarily on teaching contracts, research consultancy, personal savings and financial support from their families to generate the necessary income, the paper noted.

“Given the resource constraints, there is interest in exploring whether international collaborations could help either expand research outputs via fully or partly-funded scholarships, or enhance the quality of current provision,” said the DAAD paper.

Growth in doctoral student numbers

On a positive note, the conference heard that PhD enrolments are on the increase across the African continent, in line with rapid expansion of the higher education sector as a whole, although not as quickly as required for national development needs. As a result, there was need for countries to significantly expand their pool of doctoral graduates and increase their research outputs.

“While attention to PhDs might appear a luxury in low- and middle-income countries, this expansion is necessary both to facilitate the growth of undergraduate education while maintaining quality, and to ensure a vibrant research community (both inside and outside universities) to address societal challenges,” the DAAD paper said.

Regional collaboration

The conference highlighted the fact that Sub-Saharan higher education institutions and research centres are yet to maximise their full potential in creating networked communities of African academics, a recent conference heard.

At over 60% in East and Southern Africa, international collaboration accounts for most of the regions’ research output, while intra-regional collaboration – between researchers of two African countries – accounts for below 15%, according to figures presented at the conference.

Speakers at the conference said quality and relevance of doctoral education and the research produced in Sub-Saharan Africa universities can be significantly enhanced by interaction with stakeholders in non-university institutions.


Partnerships, speakers suggested, may develop commercial applications for research, but it was also important for doctoral students to engage with community interests to ensure that research addresses developmental needs of all segments of society.

“Higher education institutions and national agencies must work together to ensure that relevant information on programmes, disciplinary focus, enrolments, completions, onward trajectories and other information are collected and available for analysis by policy-makers and researchers,” said the director of the DAAD Regional Office for Africa in Nairobi, Dr Helmut Blumbach.

Other participants pointed to the need for curriculum reform. “Our failure to dynamically reform the curriculum to be in tandem with the rest of the world means that 'stagnant' will be the other adjective in describing Africa,” said Bitange Ndemo, who teaches technology at the University of Nairobi.

“Unfortunately, universities and colleges, which should be part of the solution, spend more time debating mundane issues like the appointment of administrators than research. We have failed in changing university curricula that will make our graduates employable,” Ndemo said at the conference.