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Research funders have no excuse to shun volatile countries

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Image: Science for Africa Foundation

RESEARCH EUROPE - 06 June, 2024

Buffers against economic and political turbulence can be built into project support, says Hannah Ngugi

Eyoab Iyasu, an Eritrean molecular biologist, was two decades into his research career before he won his first grant. The award, from Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa), an international genomics research initiative, supported him to join the Tuberculosis Genetics Network in Africa, a consortium made up of institutions in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Cameroon. 

With the funding, Iyasu’s team at the Eritrea Institute of Technology has conducted the first whole-genome sequencing of Eritrean populations. The lab can now carry out DNA extractions and PCR analyses that previously had to be sent abroad at greater expense. And by giving students access to lab equipment, it promises to revolutionise the teaching of molecular biology in Eritrea.

According to the World Bank, 70 per cent of Eritreans live below the poverty line, making it one of the world’s poorest countries. In such nations, researchers face a Catch-22 situation. They need investment to build the infrastructural capacity that funders demand, but funders will only support institutions that already have this capacity.

Funders’ reluctance is heightened by political and economic meltdowns, fluctuating exchange rates, and rules around currency transfers. Some nations, for example, require funding to be received in local currency, making reagents and equipment that must be bought in a foreign currency more expensive. In some places, even opening bank accounts can be difficult or impossible. 

Local and international restrictions mean research programmes take longer to implement, increasing both costs and exposure to economic fluctuations. Political instability puts investments and projects at risk of interruption or worse.

The effort of engaging in such challenging environments can create funder fatigue, prompting a turn towards countries with more hospitable research systems, regulations and economic frameworks. But good science can come from anywhere.

Most in need

Unfortunately, the places most lacking in research funds are often those that need them most, and a society’s own people are the ones best placed to solve its challenges. Rather than imposing their frameworks and culture, the job of funders is to support researchers to take their own approaches.

Over the years, the Science For Africa Foundation has found ways to fund research in politically and economically challenging environments. Much of this involves bolstering the continent’s science ecosystem and institutional governance through promoting efficient research and grant management, and other support, such as financial services. 

For the H3Africa consortium, for example, the foundation, which implements Wellcome’s contribution to the programme, managed funds in-house throughout the implementation period. Similarly, in some West African nations where research funding has to be paid in euros, we have negotiated an arrangement where the foundation receives the funds, giving grantees stability by enabling them to hedge against the volatility of local currencies.

Where lead institutions cannot transfer funds to partners, we have paid suppliers directly. And we have facilitated direct payments to suppliers in Europe, saving researchers the expense of currency transfers. This is not ideal—it’s better when funds and accountability reside directly with the researcher— but it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of good.

Working in these countries requires continuous monitoring and adaptation, reviewing research programmes regularly and adjusting to changing conditions on the ground. When Sudan was plunged into conflict, for example, we helped Iyasu’s partners at the University of Khartoum move their work to Ethiopia.

Funding and management 

Over time, we believe that by combining funding for research with support for good financial management, we can help more African institutions build the environments and infrastructure needed for high-quality research. 

Enabling African countries to achieve their scientific potential is a long-term investment. The SFA Foundation is not avoiding difficult regulatory environments, but bringing our experience and skills to help build resilience and allow countries to face their internal problems. Other funders can do the same.

By doing so, they can equitably promote science and strengthen low-resource research institutions, advancing science in Africa and strengthening each country’s systems, policies, places and, most importantly, people. The struggles make successes like Iyasu’s all the more sweeter. 

Hannah Ngugi is head of finance, grants and procurement at the Science for Africa Foundation, based in Nairobi

This article also appeared in Research Europe

About the Author(s)

Hannah Ngugi

Head of Finance & Grants, SFA Foundation