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Every year, for the next five years, five African students will embark on PhDs at Cambridge as part of a new initiative under the Cambridge-Africa programme.

As Africans, we generally want to give something back, no matter where we are. After seven years in the lab, doing something that anybody could be doing, I decided to do something for Africa.

Dr Pauline Essah, Cambridge-Africa Project Manager

It’s October and the new academic year brings with it an influx of new PhD students. Among them this year are five PhD students from Ghana, Nigeria, Niger and South Africa, and Cambridge-Africa’s project manager Dr Pauline Essah is delighted.

What so excites Essah is not where the students are from, but how they are funded. Because these are the first of 25 PhD students who over the next five years will be fully funded by the Cambridge Trust and the University, an investment in capacity-building in Africa worth £3.5m.

“Having scholarships that we can rely on for African students for the next five years is amazing,” she explains.

The aim of the studentships – and the Cambridge-wide Cambridge-Africa programme – is to help build Africa’s own world-class, research-led universities to work on solutions for the continent’s challenges.

To do so, African universities need to develop and retain internationally competitive researchers with access to the best facilities. Without them, African universities cannot mentor the next generation of young researchers and sustain successful, competitive research environments.

It’s a vicious circle Essah knows well – because it mirrors her own story. Ghanaian in origin, she came to Cambridge for her MPhil and PhD. After postdoctoral research she went on to help initiate Cambridge-Africa.

“What stopped me returning to Africa was having new knowledge and new skills that I knew I couldn’t use effectively there. If I went back, it would be primarily as a teacher, not a researcher,” she recalls.

“As Africans, we generally want to give something back, no matter where we are. After seven years in the lab, doing something that anybody could be doing, I decided to do something for Africa.”

Essah approached Professor David Dunne who, for the past 25 years, has worked with African partners on neglected tropical diseases such as schistosomiasis, and Professor James Wood of the Department of Veterinary Medicine, who works on emerging infectious diseases with the University of Ghana. They agreed that to strengthen research capacity in Africa, the continent needed more PhDs, embedded in a network that provided them with research opportunities in African universities, focused on African priorities.

“Together with our African partners, we came up with the model of supporting African PhD and postdoctoral researchers through the provision of mentorship by Cambridge researchers, particularly based with our key institutional partners at Makerere and the Ugandan Virus Research Institute (UVRI) and the University of Ghana,” she explains.

Connecting projects

The new PhD students are just one part of Cambridge-Africa, which since 2013 has covered Cambridge’s long-standing engagement with Africa. Initiatives include the Wellcome Trust-funded Makerere-UVRI Infection & Immunity Training Programme (MUII) and Training Health Researchers into Vocational Excellence (THRiVE); the Cambridge-Africa Partnership for Research Excellence (CAPREx), funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Isaac Newton Trust; the Alborada Trust Research Fund; and the Wellcome Trust-Cambridge Centre for Global Health Research.

Bringing together these initiatives under a Cambridge-Africa banner was a key move for the University, says Dr Toby Wilkinson, Head of the International Strategy Office: “There was a strong feeling that Cambridge was doing a lot in Africa but not making the most of its connectivity.”

While the change may seem semantic, the move should help projects become more sustainable. “Often, if the University badges something as an institutional priority, this attracts support and funding that standalone projects lack,” he says.

In Cambridge, the new approach is generating a genuine academic buzz, as well as helping the University meet its mission. In Africa, it can play a key role in nation building. “There isn’t a single advanced developed economy that doesn’t have good universities,” says Wilkinson. “So part of the strategy is to enable African researchers to become internationally competitive in their own right.”

African PhD students and postdocs at Cambridge are already having an impact. One such is Dr Annettee Nakimuli, who studied medicine at Uganda’s Makerere University, where she specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology. Supported by a MUII fellowship, she did her PhD with Professor Ashley Moffett at Cambridge, looking at the genetic risk of pre-eclampsia in Ugandan women.

A major cause of maternal and neonatal mortality, pre-eclampsia rates in Africa are significantly greater than in developed countries. Some researchers think this adverse trait is preserved in African populations because it may protect against placental malaria.

By unpicking its genetic basis in Africa, mothers and babies across the world will benefit.

Dunne’s own field of parasitology also shows that answers to many global problems lie in African questions.

The worms he works on affect one third of the world’s population, but the immunological responses they provoke provide an important way of studying the high levels of allergy now affecting the developed world.

Answers to global questions

“You cannot understand immune responses by looking at the peculiar situation of allergy in the developed world. You have to study worms in rural African populations where these immune responses developed over millions of years,” he explains.

“I’ve worked on worms and allergy for 30 years, but the amount of work that a few scientific tourists like me can produce isn’t enough. We need world-class, indigenous African research.”

As well as academics, Cambridge-Africa is an umbrella for students and admin staff. Each year, the student-led Cambridge Development Initiative takes between 30 and 40 Cambridge students to work with Tanzanian students on health, engineering, education and entrepreneurship projects in Dar es Salaam.

And in 2013 and 2014, funded by CAPREx, Debbie West-Lewis and a team from the Research Operations Office developed and delivered tailor-made training on research administration at the University of Ghana, Legon and Uganda’s Makerere University.

“Setting up a research grants administration office is an overwhelming job,” she explains. “You’re trying to incorporate funders’ requirements, university policies, and ensure that it’s underpinned by sound business practice – but doing so where there is unreliable broadband, and where none of their systems talked to each other.”

The training covered everything from contracts, costing tools and record keeping, to giving presentations, creating newsletters and applications. As well as maintaining informal links between the Research Office and their African counterparts, they are passing on what they learned.

“It’s about building relationships,” West-Lewis says. “They can contact me any time and I’ll find them the right person to talk to. And they are sharing that information, not only internally but with other African universities.”

The challenge now is to ensure that Cambridge-Africa grows and thrives. “It’s a continent with amazing talent,” Wilkinson concludes. “Looking ahead 30 years, Africa is going to be vitally important in all world issues. To remain at the forefront of global research – and contribute to society – Cambridge must be deeply engaged with Africa.”


16 October 2015


Neuroscience summer school, Tanzania