By Conrad Onyango, Bird
The continent’s brightest science students are engaging far more with their African alma-maters, bolstering the quality of academic literature as the COVID-19 pandemic creates new demand for high-end medical research and raising the possibility of a “brain gain” as top students return to the continent.
The Africa Risk-Reward Index 2021, shows the continent is experiencing increased public-private sector funding towards research and development, a trend that could significantly boost African universities’ capacity to retain their best students and increase their competitiveness against global peers.
“The ‘brain drain’ has historically not only weighed on academic output but has also reduced the availability of certain skills. However, this is changing,” says the Index.
Over the last five years, the index shows five African universities have more than doubled the number of published academic papers in numerous fields.
Egypt leads the continent with 4,200 citable academic publications in biochemistry, genetics and molecular sciences published last year- the country is ‘the most prolific producer of this type of research in the continent’.
Most research in the North African country focused on the treatment and prevention of diseases and other medical conditions.
South Africa comes second, with 2,255 publications in 2020, encompassing treatment, prevention, communication, monitoring, and diagnosis.
Nigeria (1,290), Ethiopia (501), and Kenya’s (408) might be seen as insignificant but compared to those published five years ago, the increase is remarkable.
In 2015, the number of citable academic publications in the fields of biochemistry, genetics, and molecular sciences in Nigeria numbered just 477, Ethiopia 185, and Kenya published just 197.
Tunisia (735) and Morocco (643) in 2020 centred their research work on prevention and diagnosis.
“This trend has been driven by a number of factors including a pick-up in both public and private-sector funding of research and a stronger collaboration between African Alumni and their host universities,” according to the Index.
Analysts at Control Risks and Oxford Economics who prepared the index see Africa continuing to churn out more citable academic papers in future, with the digitalization of education and as scientists collaborate ever-more over the internet to find cures for COVID-19 and other viruses.
The pandemic has increased activities in Africa’s medical sector sparking a series of funding and growth in e-health and biotech as the continent races to manufacture its own vaccines.
In April 2021, Africa Union and Africa Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) launched Partnerships for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) that will see African nations build capacity to manufacture 60 percent of vaccines locally by 2040.
In 2020, African markets were a beehive of activity for private sector players seeking to tap into the growing opportunities in biotech and digital healthcare applications.
Investment funding towards African health-tech start-ups grew four-fold in 2020, to 103 million US dollars, defying a pandemic-related slowdown in investment flows to the continent.
Last year, Nigeria launched Africa’s first private lab for human whole-genome sequencing, following a 15 million US dollar fundraise by start-up, 54Gene.
South Africa’s biotech start-up, LifeQ secured 47 million US dollars to meet the rising demand for remote monitoring, while Ghana’s, Yammachi biotechnology received funding from search engine giant, Google to sequence and track COVID-19 variants.
Earlier in the year, Rwanda introduced an investment law to encourage investments in biotech and other technologies in a new Kigali innovation city.