Equal partnerships? Questions about US$35 million project

A consortium of nine American and European universities and a crop science organisation led by the United Kingdom’s University of Cambridge has won a US$35 million grant from Bill and Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations, a subsidiary of the foundation, for research work in Africa – an initiative that is raising eyebrows over the level of participation of local collaborators.

The group, led by the university’s Crop Science Centre, will undertake a five-year research project meant to help African farmers produce more food without using expensive chemical fertilisers, in an unusual arrangement that excludes African universities and barely involves local African research institutions.

In what could be seen to be in breach of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, which aims to ensure the accountability of donors in the way in which they deliver and manage aid, the Engineering the Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA) research programme aims to ‘engineer’ crops to make better use of nutrients already present in the air and the soil in order to improve yields, the university said in a statement.

It will focus on six ‘priority’ crops of cassava, cowpea, maize, rice, sorghum and soybean, seen as staple and food security crops in different parts of the Sub-Saharan Africa region.

It, however, does not name the countries it will be implemented in. According to Professor Giles Oldroyd, the director of the Crop Science Centre and leader of the ENSA project, an announcement about this aspect will follow once a meeting has taken place in Africa.

Project in ‘early phase’

The initiative, the statement said, aimed to bring together global expertise across the crop research and development sector to “evaluate, de-risk and advance the best science to improve smallholder farmer livelihoods and the communities they feed”.

“Partnering with African-based institutions is paramount to ENSA’s work and will continue to be a cornerstone of the research project to boost sustainable crop development on the continent,” said Oldroyd.

Over the past decade, he said, the project has partnered with organisations such as the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), University of Ghana, and Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA-ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as “a number of other African universities”, he added while hinting that BecA-ILRI may be looped into the project at a later date.

“While this latest research project is still in the very early discovery phase, as the work advances, we will put in place further collaborations, which are essential to ensure the viability of any future product.

“This includes working closely with scientists and national agricultural research organisations in Africa to understand African growing conditions, African soils and the needs of smallholder farmers,” he told University World News.

“As we said in the previous response, ENSA has been partnering with BecA and WACCI during our previous phases of our work,” Oldroyd explained, adding that the first incoming African director of ILRI, Cameroon’s Professor Appolinaire Djikeng, was elated about the renewed funding for ENSA, and was optimistic it would strengthen their partnership.

Equitable partnership or not?

While the ENSA initiative does not amount to “helicopter research” – which is when external investigators collect data from a local research community before vanishing without further engagement with the target community – as it planned to benefit African farmers, African experts contend that the arrangement is in potential contravention of guidelines on responsible conduct of research and the principles of fair and equitable partnership.

This is because research integrity, an integral part of ethical research as per the June 2022 draft Cape Town statement calls for fairness, equitable partnerships, respect, diversity and inclusivity – all of which are contravened where local partners are not involved, observed Francis Kombe, CEO of African ethical research organisation EthiXpert.

“In this era where research integrity and equitable partnership have become integral to responsible research and innovation, no research should be done without adequate involvement of local researchers. This involvement should start from the planning, all the way to implementation,” he told University World News.

He added: “Africa has the intellectual capabilities and all that it takes to sit at the decision-making table to decide what research, for whom and for what outputs, should be done. There is, therefore, no excuse for any external researchers to conduct research in Africa, without the engagement and participation of local researchers, whether or not such research is likely to yield the right results.”

Local knowledge, he noted, is an invaluable resource in research planning, implementation and sustainability, and the ultimate goal of any research initiative should be to identify solutions for problems affecting society. Researchers, therefore, needed “buy-in” from the local community in order for their research to be taken up positively.

“Most importantly, research must be sensitive to local needs and expectations, including religious, traditional and cultural diversity of the populations involved in the research as all these inform buy-ins, and uptake of research.

“Research that does not address local needs contravenes the principle of beneficence and, as such, can be equated to exploitation of otherwise vulnerable populations,” he explained.

As a result, community engagement is critical, to allow researchers to listen to the voice of the local community and ensure their research is aligned to local needs and cultural aspirations.

At the moment, he noted, there is very limited information about the ENSA project consortium to ascertain whether or not its work, for example, is going to benefit local scientific research expertise while at it, or to determine to what extent local researchers will be involved.

Hiring local scientists

Professor Anthony Kibe of Kenya’s Egerton University said that, while the ENSA project does not qualify for the ‘helicopter’ tag, it appeared to have enough money to hire local scientists, which will help its owners get real data.

“We have a good number of scientists for hire, who have no local funding to support any research of their own,” he noted.

Local science, however, does not benefit from such work, as the local researchers hired don’t use the findings, nor keep them in their libraries. He added that, at best, such information is only used when need be and, thus, is only partially beneficial to local scientists.

Back to Oldroyd, who disclosed that, through “parallel funding”, he had secured bursaries for masters and PhD students “who are nationals” of the Sub-Sahara region to join the new masters in crop sciences at the University of Cambridge.

“This begins in October 2023 and we have an outstanding group of international students who will be joining the programme. I am in the process of arranging placements and aligned research projects with institutions in Africa, and will be working with the organisations with which I already have a history,” he added.

“I want to ensure that we create world-class training opportunities, aligned to research partnerships in Africa, ensuring students have opportunities and networks at African institutions,” he further disclosed, but did not talk about the role of ENSA or African universities in the training scholarships.

Other institutions involved are the University of Oxford, United Kingdom; NIAB, a crop science organisation, UK; Royal Holloway University of London, UK; Aarhus University, Denmark; Wageningen University and Research, Netherlands; University of Freiburg, Germany; University of Toulouse III Paul Sabatier, France; University of Illinois, United States; and Pennsylvania State University, US.

This news report was updated on 25 February 2023.