A Fresh Future for African Research?

Published on 15th September 2009

We have been supporting science and research in Africa for some time. Between 2002 and 2006, we provided some 94 million Euros for more than 800 African institutions, particularly for work on Environment, Agriculture and Health.


In the first two years of the current EU Framework Programme for research, we already have 387 cases of African participation, related to some 53 million Euros of funding. African participation is becoming as large as the participation of industrialised countries.


This is part of something new and different: "A fresh future for African Research." It is different because, this time the priority research areas were chosen by Africa. They are not only relevant to Africa's needs, but based on existing African capacity. This is a significant move from old style scientific cooperation with European scientists, research organisations and funders deciding what's best for Africa, to a new situation where research is managed by African Institutions via partnership with Europe. 


It is different because these priorities fit into a continent-to-continent framework. The Partnership on 'Science, Information Society and Space' signed in December 2007 provides this new vision for research activity. And it is a vision signed up to - by the African Union and the European Union - but also by their 80 individual member states in Africa and Europe.


Our cooperation in science and research is moving from a spirit of 'Donorship' to one of 'Partnership'. From traditional technology transfer and technical assistance to a real cooperation that will help to strengthen research excellence; that will create the conditions to enhance adaptive research through the involvement of excellent local scientists and that will combine the latest scientific knowledge with the local knowledge that can unlock its potential and maximise its impact.


Partnership doesn't just happen because you sign an agreement or a declaration. It is a process that requires commitment. It is a different way to approach problems and to work together. The operational framework for the partnership is set out in a "Book of Projects" developed by the African Union Commission and confirmed by AMCOST.


What research will be funded?


We expect to select at least 10 research based Specific International Cooperation Actions (SICAs) and five Coordination and Support Actions covering detailed research topics. The participation of the African and European researchers in all projects has to be in balance and appropriate to ensure high quality research results.


The research will have to address the main challenges of today such as climate and demographic changes. But also broader socio-economic factors such as migration, resettlement, urbanisation, health care systems, destabilisation of national food reserves, food and oil prices.




The continuing high mortality of mothers and newborns will be addressed through research into developing effective, innovative and comprehensive interventions. Malaria control remains a major challenge - targeting transmission vectors has been a powerful approach; but new improved tools are urgently needed. Research will be supported on the impact of migration on health status, disease patterns and health systems, to provide better evidence for future policies.


These specific health topics are complemented by a coordination action to build sustainable health research capacity, encouraging networks of existing or emerging African research and teaching centres. And the human resource crisis in the health sector will be addressed via research on effective policies and key interventions.


Environmental Challenges


The call addresses important African environmental challenges, to consolidate knowledge on integrated water resource management to reduce risks of water related conflicts and improve food security. It also addresses the development of drought monitoring and forecasting systems, decentralised water supply and sanitation technologies and systems for small communities - perhaps the only suitable options in Africa where water supply is limited. And, related to climate change and health, the call gives emphasis to water related vector-borne diseases, an important emerging problem.


Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, and Biotechnology


For agriculture, the call addresses soil erosion, salinisation, decrease of soil fertility and pollution of fresh waters. These constitute serious threats to food production but they can be much reduced by better agricultural water mismanagement. One topic will support research on sustainable management of soil and irrigated water considering the increasing demand for locally produced food, the need for a more sustainable food production and techniques for irrigated farms. Other topics address malnutrition in Africa and the role of biotechnology to cope with water scarcity.


This Call isn't the only early step of our new science co-operation with Africa. With the help of the European Commission and the ACP Secretariat, the African Union Commission's Human Resource Science and Technology Department will launch a new research initiative at the beginning of 2010: the African Research Grant. This will make 15 million Euros available for proposals on scientific topics defined by the African research community.


The African Research Grant will have a double impact: It will create a system of competitive research grants on a pan-African level to increase research excellence; And it will also help to build up the capacity for research programme management in the AUC Human Resources Science and Technology Department which will administer the programme.


Future of Africa- EU partnership


In Africa - as in Europe – most research spending and facilities remain in the hands of national governments and authorities; but the challenges that science must address do not recognise borders and are often regional, continental and more and more often global. This means that African states must work together more. 


Africa faces today important environmental and socio-economic challenges. But those challenges are shared challenges. Some are shared with other African countries, some are shared globally.Our responses must therefore also be shared, and science and research is an important part of the response. Co-ordination between different countries' research agendas isn't straightforward – but it will pay great dividends.


Even when challenges are shared they often affect different countries and regions of the world in different ways. Similarly the same scientific knowledge must be adapted and translated to local needs and capacities, building on indigenous knowledge.So even if we work in partnership, even if we share our knowledge, we will have to apply it differently.


Africa's indigenous knowledge is a powerful asset which is still to be exploited fully. Indeed it is often essential in translating scientific knowledge into usable knowledge. This has to be done at many levels, whether it is in helping farmers to adapt their techniques to climate change or biotechnology developments, or helping ministers to make decisions based on sound science.


Good quality research and a good quality science base is fundamental to solving these challenges in Africa as in the rest of the world.  Africa has important research potential: it has immense human capital resources with thousands of students graduating yearly; and Africa also has some major research and scientific infrastructures. For African development it is necessary to make active use of this potential to avoid losing it.


By Commissioner Janez POTOČNIK






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