Research is often unpaid in sub-Saharan Africa

Over 80% of academics and students polled report that they have held unpaid research positions.

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A laboratory technician in Kenya

Many researchers work for free in Africa, sometimes for years, before getting a paid position. Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

Unpaid research stints are the norm for scientists in sub-Saharan Africa, according to an online survey of 412 academics that spanned 6 countries.

Eighty-five per cent of respondents report having had research positions with no pay. Of those, 33% had spent between 1 and 5 years doing research for free, and 4% had spent more than 5 years doing so (see ‘Unpaid research in Africa’).

Many researchers on the continent work with organizations out of personal interest or to contribute to a specific cause, says Lem Ngongalah, head of the Collaboration for Research Excellence in Africa (CORE Africa) in Douala, Cameroon.

“In many cases, there is no payment for such work, because the organization itself has no funding for the work it does,” she says. “Funding continues to be a significant challenge for research in Africa.”

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend, on average, just 0.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on funding research and development, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics. The African Union has set a target of 1% of GDP on research and development, and leaders of African countries have committed to meeting that target by 2025.

The respondents to the survey — who come from Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa — also identified other barriers to conducting research in Africa. These included a shortage of training facilities and a loss of interest or motivation to continue research.

The results of the survey were posted on 17 October to the bioRxiv preprint server1 by authors from CORE Africa.

Source: BioRxiv, (2018).

“Unpaid research sometimes serves as a gateway to getting employed, as some organizations have a requirement that people work unpaid for a while before becoming paid staff,” Ngongalah notes.

Volunteer science

Such unpaid experience, draws a mixed response from researchers.

“I think it’s unfair,” says Lethiwe Debra Mthembu, doctoral researcher in chemistry at Durban University of Technology in South Africa. “It is not a bad practice, but it is unfair to those who practise it.”

Aubrey Mainza, a chemical engineer at Centre for Minerals Research at the University of Cape Town, says unpaid research is no good for science in Africa. “If we don’t put funds into research we consider as pertinent to Africa, we will take long to find a solution," he says. "When we eventually do, the problem has multiplied and the solution has little impact.”

But others view it in a more positive light. Inalegwu Oono, a Nigerian public-health specialist, looks back fondly on three stints of unpaid research work he did between 2008 and 2010.

He explored violence against health workers in Nigerian hospitals for six months, gathered the level of HIV-related knowledge among secondary-school youth in Abuja for three months, and conducted a needs assessment for a mentoring programme to secondary-school youth in Benue State for four months.

“I had to fill a unique research gap that exists in Nigeria while improving my research skills,” he says. “Besides, unpaid research work looks good on my CV as voluntary activities.” Oono went on to complete a PhD in public health at Newcastle University, UK.

A dearth of indigenous funding organizations also contributes to the practice of unpaid research, says Doyin Odubanjo, executive secretary of the Nigerian Academy of Science in Lagos.

“I interact a lot with young researchers in Nigeria,” Odubanjo says. “Very few of them have any research funds, yet they do research and publish papers. So, it is obvious that they must be spending their personal funds.”

Hope for change

Odubanjo sees a solution in setting up national research-funding agencies, even if the funds are small to start with. Once the governments see the practical results of funded research on tackling societal challenges, he says, they will be encouraged to put in more money.

Respondents to the survey also identified factors that could help to improve research output in Africa. Such factors included providing more training and support on research and publishing, receiving more government funding, and raising societal awareness on the importance of research. Almost half of the respondents also said that there was a need to increase collaboration among researchers.

A related challenge identified by the survey is a lack of training opportunities.

Most respondents said that they were unaware of any organization that provided research-training or development programmes within sub-Saharan Africa. “This finding suggests that research-training institutions are either non-existent, limited in number, inefficient, not tending to the needs of these researchers, or a combination of these,” Ngongalah says.

Different approaches are required to improve the situation, one of which is to actively engage with African scientists in the diaspora and tap into their expertise, says Yaw Bediako, a Ghanaian postdoctoral researcher in cell biology at the Francis Crick Institute in London.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07244-w


  1. 1.

    Ngongalah, L., Emerson, W., Rawlings, N. N. & Musisi, J. M. Preprint at bioRxiv (2018).

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