Why African Countries Need to ​​Invest in Research and Citizen Science​

To help address Africa’s R&D challenges, increased funding and citizen science are needed, writes Esther Ngumbi. 

Esther NgumbiClimate change, HIV/AIDS, recurring droughts, and food insecurity are some of the most pressing issues the African continent has had to deal with in 2016. [1,2,3] These issues pose a significant threat to economic, social and environmental development in Africa and create health and economic challenges to the continent.

Yet, all of these challenges can benefit from research results spinning off from African universities and research institutions. But to get these results, the institutions must have the funds.

Low R&D funding for agriculture

Take the case of agriculture, which is the greatest contributor to Africa’s gross domestic product. Disappointingly, with the exception of South Africa, investments and budget allocations by African national governments to agricultural research and development (R&D) and extension stand at less than 10 per cent. [4]

Ethiopia, for example, allocated 0.19 per cent of its 45 per cent agricultural gross production to research. The same situation applies to R&D in general. African countries such as South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda invest less than one per cent of their GDP on R&D. [4]

The majority of these funds come from different sources, including national governments, donor contributions, loans from development banks, and initiatives by the private sector. [5]

This minimal allocation of funds to R&D begs the question: Can the current existing African research funding — both external and internal — be used to solve these challenges? If not, how can we leverage the current funding of African research and development to solve some of the most pressing problems that our societies are facing?

Funding solutions

First and foremost, to bridge the societal expectations and help solve the current needs, there must be more collaborations. Researchers at both public and private institutions and other research entities that are working on these challenges need to collaborate and work with on-the-ground partners such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) because such entities frequently interact with the end users, the people affected by these challenges. Furthermore, NGOs are driven to get results.

For example, external donor agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) — invests in solving today’s challenges. They sometimes administer their research funds through local NGOs. [6] Just recently, USAID announced US$127 million to help address the needs of those affected by drought and El Nino in Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. [6]

Governments can also do the same and encourage universities and other national research institutes to partner NGOs to deliver solutions to communities.

Another innovative way to leverage available funding is for African institutions to partner with philanthropic funding agencies. It is refreshing that a partnership involving institutions such as the African Academy of Sciences, the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has launched Grand Challenges Africa to address societal challenges. [7]

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has invested over US$450 million since 2003, and is one of the largest contributors to R&D in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through the grand challenges model, an approach that creates innovations for addressing key global health and development problems, many of Africa’s pressing challenges have been solved. [8] The grand challenges model has also been used by USAID for initiatives such as powering agriculture, fighting Ebola and securing water for food. [9]

Moreover, through Grand Challenges Canada, innovations supported as of March 2016 in developing countries “could save between 500,000 and 1.5 million lives and improve between 14 and 30 million lives by 2030”. [10]

A deeper look at innovative solutions to today’s challenge shows that many of the initiatives have some external donor funding. A major setback with this kind of funding is that African countries do not have the chance to set their own research agendas. This can be counteracted by having African governments allocate budgets to fund some of the most pressing issues affecting their citizens.

Moreover, to generate impact and create sustainable solutions, research should be more inclusive, especially to the end users, the citizens. Citizens must feel that they are part of the process of research. They should play an active role in defining, implementing and evaluating research intended to improve their livelihoods.

Focusing on citizen science

One creative way of engaging citizens would be through citizen-science research projects. [11] African governments and donor agencies should fund such projects. Citizen science enlists society members who care about the issue and engages them in the process of inquiry and discovery of new knowledge. It also goes a long way in making participants feel important because they are engaged in learning how to create solutions and affect change for the future. Citizen science is a win-win experience both for the participants and scientists. Participants get to experience what it is like to obtain data, the backbone of science. Scientists on the other hand, get the science done while helping them draw meaningful conclusions from the very large datasets. At the same time, citizen science will ensure that members of the society know exactly what is happening.

There are numerous successful initiatives that have used citizen science. NASA, for example, is using citizen science to map global soil moisture. [12] Data gathered from the ground complements and validates data collected from space and allows scientists to gather information on soil moisture conditions, which is important for monitoring drought and many other applications related to agriculture. Citizens who participate are able to get feedback about the quality of their soils and are able to compare their soils to others.

Finally, African research institutions can take advantage of the widespread use of mobile phones to boost citizen science.  For instance, new technologies and transformational research results could be shared with citizens through mobile phone technology.

Helping Africa to deal with today’s challenges requires investment, innovation and collaboration. It is time for universities, research institutions, governments, private partners, NGOs and citizens join forces to solve Africa’s challenges.

Esther Ngumbi is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama, United States. She serves as a 2015 Clinton Global University (CGI U) Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute. She can be contacted at [email protected]/* */
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk with the support of IDRC.


[1] Global Issues-Africa  (United Nations, 2016)
[2] Reid Hamel Drought-ravaged Malawi faces largest humanitarian emergency in its history (Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2 August 2016)
[3] Southern Africa: Food insecurity- 2015-2016 (reliefweb, 2016) 
[4] African Agriculture Status Report, 2016 (AGRA, 2016) 
[5] Nienke Beintema and Gert-Jan Stads Taking stock of national agricultural R&D capacity in Africa south of the Sahara (ASTI, November 2014)  
[6] USAID announces $127 million in additional humanitarian aid to southern Africa (USAID, 25 July 2016)
[7] Grand Challenges Africa-Innovation seed grants (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 17 November 2016) 
[8] Global Grand Challenges (Bill& Melinda Gates Foundation, 2016)
[9] Grand Challenges for Development USAID (USAID, 2016) 
[10] Grand Challenges Canada: Evidence-based innovation Annual Report 2015-2016 (Grand Challenges Canada Inc., 2016) 
[11] The power of citizen science (Citizen Science Association, 2016)
[12] Arvind Suresh Citizen scientists enlisted for research examining soil moisture conditions and water  (Plos Blogs, 15 July 2015) 

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