Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development BankCredit: Eric Roset/Africa Progress Panel/CC-BY-2.0

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By aggressively boosting research and development in Africa, Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), says that the continent has the chance to truly achieve sovereignty by finding solutions that truly fit its epidemiological profile, instead of adapting solutions developed for different populations.

Africa’s poor public funding for research is well documented. In 2006, member countries of the African Union committed to spending 1% of their GDP on research and development. But by 2019, the continent’s funding was only 0.42%, in sharp contrast to the global average of 1.7%.

One of the outcomes of this is the continent’s inability to fully maximize its positioning in the global market for vaccines and other pharmaceuticals — producing only 0.1% of the world’s vaccine doses while accounting for about 15% of the global population.

In August 2022, Nature Africa reported the AfDB board’s approval of the establishment of the African Pharmaceutical Technology Foundation that aims to transform the indigenous African pharmaceutical industry, by enhancing access to the technologies needed for the manufacture of medicines and vaccines, and other pharmaceutical products and decrease the continent’s reliance on imports.

Adesina noted that Africa’s heavy reliance on importation for its vaccines, drugs and other pharmaceutical needs, has a ‘knock down effect’ on the continent’s ability to have a very productive, efficient, cost-competitive global health delivery system.

Investing in higher education

In an open letter in Nature Medicine calling on African leaders to take greater responsibility to streamline research programmes and funding, Janet Midega, a vector biologist from Kenya, and colleagues noted that African universities and other institutions need to expand their focus to integrate teaching with scientific research.

Adesina however noted the odds stacked against the attainment of these goals in several African universities that lack adequate funding and resources to set up the right laboratories, acquire equipment, and employ technologists with broad experience.

Obstacles are increased by unrest in some countries, such as Nigeria, where several universities have been closed since February 2022 when university lecturers went on strike over the government’s refusal to fulfil a 2009 agreement which included a better welfare package and improved facilities for universities across Nigeria.

“In which part of the world you go, do you see people developing things and lecturers are on strike for two years or three years? Knowledge cannot be interrupted. We’ve got to have a stable learning environment where students can learn well — and well remunerated professors with research grants,” Adesina says.