Leading African scientists to drive continent's research agenda

Seven leading African researchers are the recipients of major funding from the Wellcome Trust and the Department for International Development (DFID) to establish cutting-edge research and training programmes across the continent.

The DELTAS Africa programmes establish world-class research environments at African universities with a strong focus on creating training opportunities for the next generation of researchers. Many of the awards allow research to be carried out where the health challenges are greatest, for example genetic analysis of drug-resistant malaria across East and West Africa, developing mental health programmes in countries where there is little or no investment, and locally relevant research into zoonotic infectious diseases.

This new, long-term strategy for funding African science, which has its centre of gravity and decision making process based firmly in the continent, is aimed at supporting the next generation of researchers to conduct relevant research and, as a result, more effectively improve human health.

In total, the DELTAS Africa scheme will award over £46 million (approximately $70 million US dollars) over an initial period of five years. The programmes are led from universities and research institutes in Ghana, Kenya, Mali, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe. All the programmes involve collaboration across the continent, including between French-speaking and English-speaking countries, and with international research centres.

The DELTAS Africa awards give African institutions greater ownership of training scientists and researchers, often in countries where becoming a scientist is not a recognised career path. In addition, outstanding students who routinely leave the continent for their training will now have the opportunity to develop their careers within Africa.

The vision for DELTAS Africa is that early next year the awards will be managed by a new research initiative in Africa, AESA (Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa), which has been created by the African Academy of Sciences and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). AESA has been working in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID.

The awards build on other Wellcome Trust activities to bring excellent research to Africa, for example the genomics programme H3 Africa, the African Institutions Initiative and the Wellcome Trust Major Overseas Programmes in Kenya, Malawi and South Africa.

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust said: "The Wellcome Trust has a long-established track record in investing in health research in sub-Saharan Africa. DELTAS Africa is a new approach and a long-term commitment, which has its centre of gravity and decision making firmly based in Africa. We welcome DFID's announcement today that it will provide additional funding to DELTAS.

"The vision is to support the new generation of African research leaders. Individuals and teams from across the continent will play a leading role in shaping and driving world class, locally driven and relevant research that improves human health."

Dr Thomas Kariuki, Director of AESA, said: "Africa is home to some of the most dynamic innovators and institutions, poised to advance the continent's research agenda. Working in collaboration with key African and international partners, AESA will help provide researchers with the funding, training and resources they need to succeed and drive forward Africa’s development."

Dr Dixon Chibanda, a DELTAS Africa awardee from the University of Zimbabwe, who is tackling the gap in provision for mental health disorders, said: "There is now overwhelming evidence showing the comorbidity of mental disorders with both communicable and non-communicable disorders. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, a large proportion of people living with HIV suffer from common mental disorders but there is nothing designed to address this challenge. To be able to design, implement and scale-up such complex interventions aimed at tackling the treatment gap, we need highly skilled researchers training and working here in sub-Saharan Africa."

Professor Thumbi Ndung'u, a DELTAS Africa awardee from the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH), a research institute of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said: "Only by working in affected communities can we truly find solutions to public health challenges. We are exceptionally well placed in sub-Saharan Africa to make a significant contribution because of our access to large numbers of patients and samples of those directly affected by both diseases. Our research is also necessary as we get to study the actual bugs and strains that are present in Africa and we can then apply the interventions and fine-tune them."

The first awardees are:

  • Dr Gordon A Awandare for the WACCBIP-Wellcome Trust DELTAS Programme; Institution: University of Ghana, Ghana Award: £5.1 million
  • Dr Dixon Chibanda for AMARI: African Mental Health Research Initiative; Institution: University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Award: £4.1 million
  • Professor Tobias F Chirwa for the Sub-Saharan Africa Advanced Training Programme for Leadership and Excellence in Biostatistics; Institution: University of Witwatersrand, South Africa Award: £3.5 million
  • Professor Abdoulaye Djimde for Developing Excellence in Leadership and Genetic Training for Malaria Elimination in Sub-Saharan Africa (DELGEME); Institution: University of Science Techniques and Technologies of Bamako, Mali Award: £5.5 million
  • Professor Alison Elliott for the Makerere University UVRI Centre of Excellence for Infection & Immunity Research and Training (MUII-plus); Institution: Uganda Virus Research Institute, Uganda, Award: £4.6 million
  • Dr Samson M Kinyanjui for the Initiative to Develop African Research Leaders (IDeAL); Institution: KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Kenya Award: £8 million
  • Professor Thumbi Ndung'u for the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV research Excellence; Institution: K RITH, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa Award: £7.3 million