Young Scientists

The perils and opportunities of experimental work in Africa

Alpha Kabinet Keita, Veronica Okello, François Piuzzi et Arouna Darga (de guache à droite) sont intervenus lors d'une session consacrée à la recherche expérimentale en Afrique lors de la conférence YASE ©Raymond Gomez/Afriscitech

To set up a laboratory in an African university is not so easy, but not impossible either

“We need to be the change we want to see in Africa,” says Veronica Okello, of the University of Machakos in Kenya. “So I decided that I had to go back to Kenya.”

However, science in Africa comes with challenges as varied and diverse as the continent itself. Chief among these issues is the challenge of doing experiments, exacerbated by a lack of modern infrastructure, funding and skills.

Second hand equipment

After her return, Okello received a Seeding Labs grant which she used to develop her own lab. Seeding Labs is an international NGO dedicated to providing lab equipment to researchers in developing countries, one of the best ways to equip an under-resourced African laboratory.

Okello believes that Africans are best able to solve African problems, and she stressed the importance of good infrastructure in order for Africa to compete on the global stage of science. A chemist working on nanoscale membranes, she suggested that a lack of resources on the continent discourages researchers from returning to their homes.

Fighting Ebola

At a session on how to do experimental work in Africa at the recent Young African Scientists in Europe (YASE 2018) conference, moderator Arouna Darga of Sorbonne Université set the tone by suggesting that African science make use of entrepreneurs found on the continent to address challenges of infrastructure.

Alpha Kabinet Keita, a scientist at the University of Montpellier, returned to his home country of Guinea to apply his expertise in eradicating Ebola and malaria. He emphasised the importance of applied experimentation on the continent, as he is responsible for the "One Health" Molecular Virology Laboratory at the National Institute of Public Health in Guinea.

Disruptive technologies

He recounted his experience as a volunteer microbiologist during an Ebola outbreak in Guinea: how active surveillance of the pandemic using experimentation helped prevent high mortality rates.

Equipment is very important in scientific research but the tools needed can be very expensive. A possible solution could be disruptive technologies cheaply and easily accessible through platforms like the internet. This was a sentiment shared by François Piuzzi, former director of research in physico-chemistry at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.

Do a lot with little

He mentioned many innovative, disruptive technologies that are used to bypass equipment barriers, such as 3D printing; smartphones; small, cheap computers like the Raspberry Pi, and many others.

“You can do a lot with very little,” he said. “We should use the money saved to then buy materials to train more people to use these disruptive technologies, and save even more this way.”

For African self-built equipment

Audience members considered the idea to supplement the expense of experimentation on the continent through international funding from regions such as Europe. This did not sit well with some of the panelists and other audience members, who emphasised a need for Africa to become self-reliant.

The audience and panelists did not, however, rule out the importance of research collaborations with other regions, and the need for better policies towards Africa-centred solutions.

Sibusiso Biyela, ScienceLink

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