'Project Reba' and how Africa can speed up excellence in research

Monday November 08 2021
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Prospective students and their parents have been examining the recently published 2022 World University Rankings.

The ranking pattern has now become familiar. European, American and Asian universities jostle for the top positions while a sprinkling of African universities start appearing after the first 200.

Some don’t even enter the rankings. This is despite universities in Africa making the most progress in the rankings since 2018. The rankings are derived using various measures.

These include funding and endowment, research excellence or influence, specialisation expertise, student admissions and options, and historical reputation.

Africa accounts for 12.5 percent of the world’s population. But it produces less than 1 percent of global research output. sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest research capacity and output in the world.

Our mission is to share knowledge and inform decisions. The continent has no shortage of intelligent, hardworking and innovative people.


These rankings indicate that Africa is not tapping its full potential. How can the continent’s research potential be enabled to make its full contribution to domestic and global challenges?

We cannot manage or improve what we do not measure. So, I propose the creation of a Research Excellence Barometer for Africa (Reba). As a Zimbabwean I feel this is particularly apt – reba is the Shona verb “to grow tall.” The barometer would operate at country level. It would identify areas of research excellence and areas of weakness.

Tools like this can be transformative. For example, a few years ago I contributed to an assessment of national health research systems in Africa using a research barometer.

The work was prompted by the recognition that health systems lacked resources and research capacity to deliver on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Between 2014 and 2018, 47 World Health Organisation Africa member states used the barometer to monitor, identify and address critical gaps in national health research systems. This has delivered significant progress over just four years.

For example, there was significant progress in the governance of research for health; developing and sustaining research resources; and producing and using research.

Three undesirable outcomes are the result: Limited, “less expensive” research, not necessarily addressing relevant local challenges; inequitable, externally funded collaborations where the African researcher is the data or sample collector for researchers in western institutions; movement of people to better paying, equipped and funded western institutions.

Of the 10 countries in the world that lose more than half of their medical graduates to work abroad, six are in sub-Saharan Africa.

My proposed barometer would identify African countries where the research ecosystem is poor, and brain drain is a significant problem and highlight policies and circumstances contributing to these.

The barometer would also identify best practice in countries that score well in these, for sharing across the continent.

Setting up the barometer requires time and investment, but its impact on the African research ecosystem will far outweigh the cost. Implementation could follow the WHO Africa National Health Research Systems Barometer model where input data is collected from ministries of health via WHO country offices.

The data collection pipeline can use links between tertiary education, science, innovation and technology ministries, the African Union, Regional Economic Community or UNESCO country representatives.

This all requires buy-in and a commitment from African stakeholders and national governments.