Better together: Research collaborations in Africa

05-11-21 USAf 0 comment

Although coming off a low base, there are signs that African research is slowing starting to grow across the continent. As Professor Aryeetey pointed out, the strong institutions must take the weaker along with them and, in so doing, create ever-expanding centres of research excellence across the length and breadth of the continent.

Professor Ernest Aryeetey is the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) Board Chair and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana.

At Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference that was held from 6 to 8 October, Professor Aryeetey was exploring the topic Research Collaboration in Africa: Making it Transnational and Transdisciplinary. He was the main speaker on the conference sub-theme Research Collaborations – Domestically and Internationally. The three executive leaders who responded to his input discussed at length the various initiatives that exist across the continent, the role of collaborations in bolstering these and what it will still take to turn Africa into a research force to be reckoned with.

Introducing this session that was hosted by USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG), Professor Thoko Mayekiso (right), RISG Chairperson and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga, said the collaborative relationship between the university and other universities and science councils both locally and globally has been a feature for many decades. She outlined a vast web of potential networks — from the United Nations Sustainability Goals to the National Development Plan 2030 and the Decadal Plan — which demand that institutions work together. She said opportunities for collaborations are not limited to research; they extend to scholarship, community engagement as well as shared services, especially in those areas where equipment is too expensive for one institution (or one country) to shoulder by itself. She said nowhere is this collaboration more evident than in the way universities around the world joined hands in the discovery, testing and roll-out of the CoViD-19 vaccines.

The RISG Chair said “as engaged universities, we need to place great value on collaborations as drivers and enablers in achieving institutional agendas. We hope this conference sets the framework for a strategic outlook for national, regional and international collaborations.”

Professor Aryeetey (left) said on the African continent, crises in one country — like poverty and unemployment — tend to spill over into surrounding countries, marked by the movement of people in search of work. The development challenges that Africa face require tackling from interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches. Whether it be unemployment or climate change, no one discipline can do justice to addressing these challenges. He cited the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a good example of how all disciplines can become involved in addressing these issues.

The former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana shone a spotlight on the role of research institutions in Africa by highlighting the changing state of research in Africa, addressing some of the innovative ways in which universities are responding and identifying some of the key gaps and the transnational and transdisciplinary initiatives currently underway.

He said most of the research undertaken in Africa is done at universities, and public universities in the main. He lamented the limited transnational and transdisciplinary collaboration, though, saying for several decades, the contribution of Africa to global knowledge production was known to be just about 1 percent, with over 50 percent of that generated by South African universities. However, over the past couple of years, this appeared to be changing. At the end of 2018, a year prior to the onset of the pandemic, Africa’s contribution to the knowledge space globally was observed to increase to about 3.5 %. However, this is still skewed predominantly in South Africa’s favour.

The graph above underscores the fact that while the overall story about research output represents great news, it also points to the unfortunate fact that others are being left behind. Professor Aryeetey said that given the increasing transnational nature of development challenges, no part of the region will thrive if others around them remain vulnerable. This is the key imperative for push towards increased collaboration and cooperation between higher education and research institutions in Africa.


Turning to the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Professor Aryeetey sketched the positive products that could emerge out of African collaborations. During the CoViD-19 pandemic, this gathering of African universities contributed to mass testing, the production and deployment of protective equipment for medical personnel and the care and treatment of patients. He said several African universities rose to the challenge by complementing government efforts aimed at containing the spread of the pandemic through contributions to mass testing, treatment remedies and vaccine development. In fact, what was game changing is that every member university of ARUA was involved in some form of CoViD-19 research, from genome sequencing to the development of sanitisers.

Pooling efforts

He said although more could be done to achieve collaborations there are signs that CoViD-19 has brought about other changes in research trends. Many academics took advantage of the period during which universities were closed to work on their research and publications. Makerere University, for example, reported a significant increase in the number of scientific publications in 2020. However, there are still gaps:

  • African universities are gradually evolving with little government recognition.
  • African governments have not demonstrated sufficient willingness to invest in discovery science.
  • The amount of investment required by African universities for research far outpaces the amount that international funders are willing to put in. Africa could be at the forefront of vaccine development if the role of African universities was taken more seriously.
  • Although African universities have risen to the challenges brought on by the pandemic through research and collaboration with national governments, the distribution of these efforts remain uneven and South African universities far outpace their contemporaries across the region by way of contribution. The pandemic has shown that insofar as a problem persists in one part of the region, it soon becomes a problem for the entire region if not for the world.

What this shows, said Professor Aryeetey, is that collaboration between scientists in Africa and their international peers will be crucial for the development of research in Africa and to provide a diversity of perspectives and approaches from the developing world. That is fundamentally the rationale behind ARUA. ARUA brings together leading universities on the continent to work by pooling their own limited resources, with a view to doing what research universities do: expand and enhance significantly the quality of research done in Africa by African researchers and enhance graduate training through various capacity building programmes. This has also meant the establishment of 13 Centres of Excellence across Africa focussing on disparate themes from energy to good governance. These are gathered in universities that act as hubs for eastern, western and southern Africa and are currently working on the development of a CoViD-19 vaccine for the continent. ARUA plans to develop 40 more Centres of Excellence over the next decade. The World Bank alone has committed to investing more than US$580 million to support these in Africa. This shows that research collaborations that require inclusive partnerships built on shared principles, visions and goals will be key to the pursuit of development on a more sustainable basis in a post-pandemic world.

Talking back

Professor Bernard Nthambeleni (above), Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Venda, was the first respondent to Professor Aryeetey’s input. He began by quoting a Venda proverb that states that ‘one finger cannot pick up a maize kernel’, to highlight the importance of collaboration. For him, it is the interaction between researchers from different places and disciplines that creates the necessary shifting perspectives that bring new insights to light. All this while making sure that resources are optimised. “When we work together we share literature, laboratories, equipment but when we work in silos we bear those costs alone”.

Collaboration also opens up the space for post-graduate researchers to move between institutions, learning from experts in the field and being exposed to new contexts. Collaboration begets more collaboration. Quoting Professor Mouton’s (2019) research, Professor Nthambeleni talked of collaborations across South Africa as an area where more needs to be done. Research publications still remain centred on a few institutions while other universities lag behind. This could be partly offset if there was a concerted effort to collaborate more effectively with private enterprises, especially in areas where expensive equipment is required.

Impediments to collaboration include structural, funding and institutional blockages but much of this can be overcome through the greater use of technology. Funding remains key though. Government, business, industry and universities must partner to ensure that the groundswell of collaboration grows and acts to uplift all institutions by providing financial support for university collaboration.


Starting with the risks identified by the World Economic Forum, Professor Eugene Cloete (right) notes that the real challenges of the future cannot be solved by a single university. Speaking from his position as the Vice-Rector of Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University (SU), he is adamant that international collaboration is the only way forward. At Stellenbosch, there is an institutional commitment to intentionally and comprehensively integrate an international, intercultural and global dimension into the purpose, functions and programmes for all SU students and staff, to advance the quality and impact of learning and teaching, research and innovation, in meaningful service of society.

“Forty percent of our students are international and it is core to what the institution does”. At a policy level, SU seeks to be a role-player within higher education in Africa and to produce graduates who are internationally competent and competitive. It also involves engagement in innovative research with a strong international focus to ensure intercultural learning experiences through global education programmes. One of its flagship programmes is the African Doctoral Academy which has been in existence for about the past decade. Run over two-week periods, it attracts about 250 participants per session and has well over 1000 alumni now. There is a clear priority towards SADC and Africa to continuously establish strategic comprehensive partnerships; to encourage outgoing student mobility to partners in Africa; focus on international student and staff recruitment: and to utilise digital technologies to create and maintain relationships throughout Africa.

Collaborations under the radar

Professor Phuti Ngoepe (left), the SARChI Chair on Computational Modelling of Materials and Director of Materials Modelling Centre at the University of Limpopo, was the third respondent to Professor Aryeetey’s input. He also spoke of the divide whereby some institutions in South Africa can collaborate while others find it more difficult. He expressed his interest in the fact that Earth sciences had received some prominence in Professor Aryeetey’s assessment of research emerging out of Africa. He cited The Organisation of African Geological Surveys as an initiative that builds geoscience programmes not only for their own sake but because of the part they can play in socio-economic development. The organisation was founded in 1929 and but was still going strong in 2016 when it hosted the International Geological Congress in Cape Town. The outcome of the conference was that a strong educational, geoheritage and geotourism legacy should be developed. These outcomes have flowed into other areas like mineral processing, water and environment, beneficiation, climate change and renewable energy initiatives.

In the field of multidisciplinary sciences research, he cited the Square Kilometer Array, African Laser Centre, Centre for High Performance Computing and others. Professor Ngoepe pointed out the importance of trans-sectoral collaboration with production companies around the world. Referring to his own university, he spoke of the work being done in multi-scale synthesis of battery electrode materials which starts with computational modelling before being tested at a pilot site before being rolled out into production. This would have been impossible, had it not been gor the international collaborations that make it viable.

Citing the importance of conferences as a way of establishing networks that spark collaborations, he emphasised the need for collaborations to be mutually beneficial, for participants to have complimentary expertise, communication between disciplines and the ability to share large facilities.

He noted with sadness that in 2006, the African Union had committed to spending 1% of GDP on research and development. However, by 2019, Africa was still lagging behind at 0,42% while the global average stands at 1,7%.

Open floor

From the audience, Professor Aryeetey was asked how collaborations can pool less research-intensive institutions with the stronger research entities. Again, using the example of ARUA, he spoke of the number of agreements signed with non-members of ARUA as a way of starting a discussion and exploring possible areas of collaboration. Professor Cloete also spoke of the issuing of joint degrees as a way of opening up the boundaries of universities to a wider and more collaborative space.

The participants also noted that if CoViD-19 and geographical mapping had managed to bring universities together, a myriad of other thematic areas could be explored to get African universities collaborating again. WEALTH, an acronym suggested by Professor Cloete, could be unpacked for a range of issues lending themselves for collective interventions. WEALTH stands for water, energy, agriculture, land and its uses, technology, and health. Other issues that could also galvanise the continent to work together are women empowerment, access, leadership, transformation, and housing. All speakers agreed that collaborations would be the only way to deal with the aftereffects of the pandemic and the climate change crisis that is following fast on its heels.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.