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Plant scientist Titus Alicai at work at the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Namulonge, Uganda, which receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Christopher Bendana

African research projects are failing because funding agencies can’t match donor money

ENTEBBE, UGANDA—Although African countries appreciate research grants from donor countries, they often chafe at the condition that they bring in their own money in order to be eligible. Some research projects fall by the wayside because African granting agencies simply have no way to provide their share of the money, sometimes called counterfunding, the heads of 15 national science councils in Africa said at a meeting held here on 4 and 5 April.

The funding agencies usually ask for contributions between 20% and 50% of the project cost, says Peter Ndemere, executive secretary of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) in Kampala. For donor agencies, it’s a way to raise interest and make sure African partners are committed to the project. “Counterfunding is important since it ensures buy-in by our partners,” Ellie Osir, a Nairobi-based senior program specialist at Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC), said at the meeting.

Sepo Hachigonta, director for strategic planning & partnerships at the National Research Foundation of South Africa in Johannesburg, added that coinvestment by African science councils is necessary to make scientific innovation sustainable; countries can’t rely on donor money alone, he said.

But Ismail Barugahare, deputy executive director of UNCST, said the requirements are hampering the development of research in sub-Saharan Africa because the recipient countries often simply lack the funds. “We don’t have it, the 20%,” he said. “We are compelled to contribute in kind. We sometimes give our vehicles; other times we provide staff.”

The heads of the 15 science councils met to discuss the Science Granting Councils Initiative, a $10 million program co-funded by IDRC to strengthen science councils in Africa. The 5-year initiative, which started in 2018, aims to help councils improve their skills to manage research, create a network among them, and facilitate knowledge transfer to the private sector. African science councils can apply for grants from the initiative, for instance for staff training—but in this program, too, they are required to bring in some money themselves.

Other contributors to the program include the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the U.K. Department of International Development. The councils that that participate in the initiative and attended the meeting include those from Uganda, Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Namibia, Mozambique, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia.

At the meeting, Elioda Tumwesigye, Uganda’s minister of science, technology, and innovation, emphasized that investing in research can lead to economic development, citing countries like South Korea, Israel, and South Africa as examples. Currently, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend less than 1% of their gross domestic product on research. Tumwesigye also called on African countries to coordinate their research efforts regionally avoid duplication.