Roselyne Sachiti Features, Health and Society Editor
Africa is a continent hard hit by brain drain. Thousands of skilled workers have left Africa in search of greener pastures, leaving the continent starved of human capital.
In search of better opportunities, infrastructure and funding, young research scientists have also left the continent. Most have stayed in their host countries with little thought of returning to work in African countries.
The impact has been felt in the areas of health at a time Africa is burdened by diseases that include cholera, typhoid, Ebola, malaria, HIV and Aids among others.
In an effort to reverse brain drain on the African continent, the Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS Africa) has brought back 22 PhD and post -doctoral young scientists.
The DELTAS Africa programme is a US$100 million programme of The African Academy of Sciences supporting the Africa-led development of world-class scientific leaders through health research support, training fellowships, mentorship, and investments in research infrastructure in 12 programmes spanning 21 countries.
Six DELTAS Africa programmes have returnees. These include the Developing Excellence in Leadership and Genetic Training for Malaria Elimination in Sub-Saharan Africa (DELGEME) which has four returnees; African Science Partnership for Intervention Research Excellence (Afrique One ) has two, West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) has three; Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE) has eight, Training Health Researchers into Vocational Excellence (THRIVE -2) has three, while the Malaria Research Capacity Development Consortium (MARCAD) has two.
One of the young researchers previously working in the Diaspora, but now back in Africa is Vincent Amarh, whose area of expertise is with bacterial pathogenesis.
“I am researching to find new drugs that can be used to treat diseases common in Africa. This is important as the current drugs that are used for treatment are no longer effective because the pathogens or bacteria are able to adapt to the presence of these drugs. There is need to develop new ones,” he told The Herald on the sidelines of the Deltas Africa Scientific Conference in Dakar, Senegal recently.
Amarh said he was focusing on diseases caused by bacterial infections, especially those caused by E.Coli, which is linked to diarrhoea and other gastro intestinal disorders. He added that if the drugs he is developing are effective against one bacterial strain, they can be also be effective against other bacterial strains.
“They are all bacteria, so there is some form of conserved properties that cuts across all of them.
“Even though the intention is to develop drugs for treatment of diarrhoea, it may also be effective for treatment of cholera, provided these diseases are caused by bacteria. Even if not directly applicable, the knowledge and the process can also be useful for other diseases in the development of new drugs,” he explained.
He begun the research after his PhD when he returned from the UK in January 2018.
“I did my PhD at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and a lot of factors drove me to return to Africa following my PhD.
“First, I wanted to contribute to training the next generation of African scientists and to provide mentoring.
“Second, there are a lot of diseases that are unique to the African continent and I had this long interest in drug development from my undergrad studies. My undergrad research was on drug research,” he revealed.
Amarh is of the view that African governments can do a lot to support young upcoming scientists and keep them on the continent.
“In my country Ghana, government has supported the World Bank grant, the ACE project. The government gave us support so that our application could be submitted.
“That grant has been used to train masters and PhD students.
“It has been used to build a secretariat and improve the lab structure we have in the department. It should not always end there, if the government would for instance put research as part of its annual budget, a tiny percentage and open it up for competition among the scientists in the field, that would also help,” he said.
He added that collaborations between young African scientists and researchers are important.
“We cannot do our work as individuals, so there is need for collaboration. One way I have been able to do collaborations from my current research is by speaking about it to my mentors, presenting it at conferences so that people see my ideas.
“When you go to some conferences, you know those in your field. You can also walk up to them and start a conversation. I have been able to convince some of them to assist in whichever way they can, not in terms of money, but they have some equipment that can help us to be able to advance the research.
“They are usually willing to help us provide that kind of infrastructure as and when we need it,” said Amarh.
The young scientist strongly feels that it will be good to collaborate with other Africans.
“We can be able to solve the problems that are related or unique to the African continent.
“The DELTAS meeting brings us in touch with some of these colleagues worrying in similar research fields,” he said.
At the DELATS Africa meeting, most speakers raised concerns over the scientific output on the African continent.
According to the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), Africa has only 169 researchers per million inhabitants, compared to 428 in Chile and 4 107 in the UK, resulting in it contributing only 2,6 percent of global scientific output.
“It goes down to providing the enabling environment. The personnel are there not only on the continent, but in the Diaspora.
“If you create a conducive environment, they will willingly return, not all, but the majority will. There is an opportunity to improve infrastructure, provide grants for Africans to apply and a dedication by government that they are willing to solve some of these problems through research,” Amarh added.
Another returnee Dr Saikou Yahya Bah, the first known scientist born in Soma, Gambia is a bioinformatician, a specialist in the application of computational tools to biological research, with a microbiology background.
Speaking to The Herald, Dr Bah said he started his research career at Medical Research Council (MRC) — The Gambia unit.
“Growing as a young child, surrounded with people suffering from different forms of diseases, motivated me to peruse a career in which I can contribute to alleviate and improve health and well-being of others.
“I went to do my undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Manchester and PhD at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. Universities in the Gambia did not offer these courses,” he said.
Dr Bah is now working as a post-doctoral researcher at the WACCBIP, at the University of Ghana. He is also an honorary research fellow at the vaccine immune theme at MRC — Gambia unit.
Speaking about his research area, Dr Bah said he has been looking at how humans respond to infectious diseases.
“I am focusing on at how children respond to infection with the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (TB), which is a leading cause of death in children. The project involves comparing 1000s of human ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules between children suffering from TB and healthy children. The aim of the project is to identify potential molecules that can be used to diagnose TB in children, which currently is a big challenge,” he said.
Beside his research, Dr Bah is also involved in teaching postgraduate students.
Speaking at the same conference, University of Zimbabwe College of Health Sciences Director of Research Professor Exnevia Gomo said they support young researchers by training them in grant writing.
He said they have initiated a number of strategies for junior researchers. One of the strategies, he said, are small grants and research capacity strengthening grants for masters and PHD fellows.
Director of the Afrique One- ASPIRE consortium Professor Bassirou Bonfoh said it is very difficult for researchers to move in Africa.
“The visa issue in Africa makes it difficult for scientists and researchers to move.
“The second thing are the collaborations. For example, if I know that there is an expert in Tanzania and my student wants to go there, it can be difficult to find someone who can host him or her there because of cultural issues and language.
“That is why the DELTAS programme is trying to put us together so that we look where we have hope to facilitate collaboration and mobility. But it is a long way,” he said.
To address this challenge, he added, partnerships between African institutions are important.
“This is something we need to build. For example, I have a fellow who got a grant to do molecular biology on salmonella and was supposed to go to Switzerland where there is infrastructure.
“The money she got under the grant was not enough and we had to look for additional funding. So I went to WACCBIP Ghana Centre Leader /Director Gordon Awandare and asked if he could accept her. He agreed as we are the same. If the partnerships between African institutions are built, mobility becomes easy,” he added.