African researchers making change on their own terms

“There is no point to health innovation if it can’t serve everyone who needs it.”

Edith Phalane, a PhD student at North-West University, is a passionate advocate for science for Africa. She was one of the panellists at a breakfast event titled Health Innovation in Africa: The Way Forward, where panelists and delegates discussed infrastructure, capacity building and community health work.

 African researchers

At the Africa breakfast early in the week, 33 delegates from 14 African countries met, and had the chance to question Prof Peter Agre, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (2003) and Director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute. Agre was generous with his time and always humble as he answered questions about how best to overcome the challenges of research in Africa – limited funding, lack of infrastructure, and a Western research paradigm among others.

His message was consistent, and well summed-up by a quote he shared, attributed to Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

South African delegate Bianca Verlinden, who works on anti-malaria drugs at the University of Pretoria, came away from the breakfast inspired and excited for her own work. “Agre’s passion came across so clearly, he really believes in scientific discovery, but also in giving back to the community,” she says. “It’s not about doing the world’s best science, it’s about doing your best science.”

Discussions at the breakfast and other events throughout the week revealed the common challenges facing African researchers. Almost all are committed to helping their own communities and countries, but often lack the support or knowledge to do so. Many are based in Europe, and some are using that to their advantage. Take Freddy Kitutu for example. A Ugandan working towards a PhD in public health. He is based at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, but his project is working on Ugandan challenges and he spends most of his time in Uganda. This is the best of both worlds, bringing developed country expertise, resources and infrastructure to work on African challenges where the work is most needed.

The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) also hosted a dinner for all ten South African delegates as well as Prof Dan Shechtman, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (2011) and his wife, Prof Tzipora Shechtman.

At the Health Innovation in Africa breakfast, Phalane and ASSAf Executive Officer, Prof Roseanne Diab, took part in the panel discussion hosted by Global Perspective.

At the event, Phalane argued for German and European Union (EU) support to focus on tropical diseases and non-communicable disease.

“If Germany wants to contribute to health in the global South, they have to make poverty-related illnesses and tropical diseases a priority,” she said. “We need infrastructure in Africa, to allow research and diagnosis on site. This will contribute to capacity building and promote Africa’s independence.”

The findings of the panel will be written up as a journal article, and presented during the Global Health Summit later this year.

 The ASSAf delegates at the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting are Blessing Ahiante (North-West University (NWU)), Shireen Mentor (University of the Western Cape), Edith Phalane (NWU), Zimkhitha Soji (University of Fort Hare), Dr Eileen Thomas (Stellenbosch University), and Dr Bianca Verlinden (University of Pretoria).

Written by Paul Kennedy, ScienceLink