How to build a THRiVing health research ecosystem locally

Saturday January 23 2016

By Prof Nelson K. Sewankambo

If I had to do it again, I would choose to undertake my doctoral studies at this university [Makerere],” remarked Stella Kepha, a PhD fellow from the Rift Valley area of Kericho in Western Kenya.

Kepha is one of 24 fellows on THRiVE (Training Health Researchers in Vocational Excellence), a project designed to strengthen the capacity of seven universities and research institutions in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.

As part of the THRiVE project, young East Africans received scholarships to research any topic in the health field — as long as they could prove that their research responded to priority health challenges in the region.

Dr David Meya, a Ugandan researcher on this programme, developed a solution for how to care for patients with fungal meningitis — a condition that mainly affects HIV patients and used to kill over 50 per cent of its sufferers. The results from his work have since been adopted by World Health Organisation.

D. Moses Galukande is another Ugandan PhD fellow whose work has produced remarkable breakthroughs in the approach to treatment and control of breast cancer, while Stella Kepha’s work will inform control efforts against malaria and worms among children in Kenya and Uganda.

Findings by Allen Kabagenyi — another fellow — are already contributing to discussions on how Uganda can benefit from its population demographics. 

Other topics include how to mobilise communities to address drug safety challenges, management of depressed HIV patients undergoing care, HIV control among men and how mothers in remote areas can handle excessive bleeding after childbirth.

For far too long, in most African research institutions, expatriate scientists are the ones who have driven research as part of their capacity strengthening efforts.

Consequently, foreign researchers have dominated the local research agenda, using their superior skills and experience to attract international funding, and, as principal investigators, exercising intellectual ownership of research findings, thus relegating African scientists to research assistants or co-investigators at the best.

East African scientists have now proved that they too can compete for large research grants and even out-compete renowned universities from the high-income countries.

The THRiVE Consortium is a £10 million project led by Makerere University, comprising East African institutions that have collaborated with Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The design and execution of this project was led by East African scientists with the assistance of their counterparts from the two UK universities.

The new approach, where African institutions are leading multi-country research initiatives, is an excellent way to strengthen research capacity among African researchers and their institutions.

Under the programme, PhD fellows were required to spend the most significant chunk of their study time working to address health problems in communities, mentoring younger health-workers, students and community leaders.

As a result of this model, PhD fellows have developed local techniques to address local health challenges. Fellows trained in their local settings tend to acquire a richer appreciation and deeper understanding of health realities faced by their people.

Such connection with their communities also makes the scholars on this programme less likely to seek employment abroad as their training is pegged to local settings.

East Africa’s governments must increase funding for training so that we gather the needed critical mass of homegrown researchers and turn them into intellectual dynamos, capable of discovering revolutionary home-grown solutions to address our health problems. 

As East Africans continue to design and lead large research collaborations, we shall develop a s research ecosystem that can fuel production of relevant health solutions for our people.

Prof Nelson K Sewankambo is president of the Uganda National Academy of Sciences. He leads the ThRiVE consortium of seven African institutions and two UK universities