Africa is affected by some of the world's deadliest diseases, including HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. It also has some of the world's poorest countries: according to the United Nations Human Development Report in 2003, the bottom 25 ranked nations were all African.
Today, the Wellcome Trust announces the formation of seven new international and pan-African consortia through its African Institutions Initiative. The partnerships - each led by an African institution - aim to develop institutional capacity to support and conduct health-related research vital to enhancing people's health, lives and livelihoods.
The Wellcome Trust already funds major programmes in Kenya, Malawi and South Africa, as well as individual research projects across the continent. However, this new initiative has created consortia focused on building a critical mass of sustainable local research capacity across Africa. It aims to do this by strengthening universities and research institutions and developing research networks.
"The African continent faces some of the world's most serious health problems stemming from disease and poverty," says Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust. "If we are to tackle these problems, we need health research on the continent to develop in a vibrant research environment geared to national priorities. It is essential that the best and brightest researchers have access to training opportunities and career pathways in their home countries.
"There is no use training excellent researchers in Africa unless a first-class environment is also available in which they can develop their careers and pursue their research. Outstanding researchers are also essential in African countries to provide leadership and to educate future generations of African students and scientists."
Dr Alex Ezeh, Executive Director at the African Population and Health Research Centre in Kenya, is leading the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA), one of the consortia to have received funding through the initiative. He believes the initiative will be important to improving research in the region.
"Notwithstanding the attention it has historically received, research capacity remains very weak in Africa," he says. "Indeed, existing research capacity-strengthening programmes and collaborative partnerships in Africa are largely driven by Northern academic and research institutions.
"The Wellcome Trust initiative represents a truly innovative mechanism to position African scholars and institutions as leaders in the collaborative efforts to rebuild research capacity in the region. It holds strong promise of creating a new class of highly networked African scholars and institutions with the requisite skills to address the region's health challenges."
Each consortium is led by an African institution and includes research and higher education partners from across the continent as well as research institutes from Europe, the USA and Australia.
Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA)
Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, USA, Australia, Switzerland and UK
Director: Dr Alex Ezeh, African Population and Health Research Centre, Nairobi, Kenya
One Health Initiative, African Research Consortium for Ecosystem and Population Health
Côte d'Ivoire, Chad, Senegal, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, UK, Switzerland and Norway
Director: Professor Bassirou Bonfoh, Swiss Centre of Scientific Research, Côte d'Ivoire
One Medicine Africa-UK Research Capacity Development Partnership Programme for Infectious Diseases in Southern Africa (SACIDS consortium)
Tanzania, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya and UK
Director: Professor Mark Rweyemamu, Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania
Research Institute for Infectious Diseases of Poverty (IIDP)
Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Nigeria, UK and Switzerland
Director: Dr Margaret Gyapong, Dodowa Health Research Centre, Ghana Health Service
Southern Africa Consortium for Research Excellence (SACORE)
Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and UK
Director: Dr Newton Kumwenda, Malawi College of Medicine
Strengthening Research Capacity in Environmental Health (SNOWS)
Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, Sudan, Denmark and UK
Director: Professor Esi Awuah, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana
Training Health Researchers into Vocational Excellence in East Africa (THRiVE)
Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and UK
Director: Professor Nelson Sewankambo, Makerere University, Uganda
While each of the consortia operates independently and sets its own agenda, certain activities are common to most. These include: leadership training and professional development, PhD and postdoctoral fellowships, improved infrastructure, competitive grant schemes and the provision of up-to-date equipment.
"The aim of this initiative is to ensure that African universities become more centrally involved in health research endeavours in Africa," says Dr Jimmy Whitworth, Head of International Activities at the Wellcome Trust. "It is only by bringing teaching, service commitment and research together that we will develop the next generation of African researchers. Through this initiative each consortium will focus on the needs of African universities to become platforms that can sustainably support internationally competitive scientific research."