African-German research networks: support for young scientists is paying off

Dedicated junior researchers from Sub-Saharan Africa are helping to improve the medical care in their countries. This is also a success of the BMBF-funded Research Networks for Health Innovations in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Young doctor looking through a microscope in Africa

In the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, many of the widespread diseases could be better researched and treated if the necessary infrastructure is continually developed. The BMBF-funded African-German research networks make a valuable contribution to this.

David L/peopleimages.com / Adobe Stock

The disease patterns in the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are shaped by infectious diseases that are specific to certain regions and often poverty-related, such as tuberculosis or diseases caused by parasites. At the same time, diseases that are widespread in our country are occurring more and more frequently in Sub-Saharan Africa too, for example diabetes or hypertension. However, the health system is often not prepared for these diverse needs, and research into the causes of diseases and effective therapies is lacking. What is therefore needed, besides well-equipped research facilities, is above all researchers working on relevant health issues within a network of experienced scientists.

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) provides targeted support for these junior researchers with the Research Networks for Health Innovations in Sub-Saharan Africa. By working in close cooperation within their respective networks, the aim is for the junior researchers to learn all aspects of scientific work and to remain in research in the long term. Between 2017 and 2022, more than 150 young scientists were working in the research networks, which are funded by the BMBF. A few of them share their personal experience here. 

Targeted support for junior researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa

More than 150 junior researchers from 14 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and from Germany received funding in the first funding phase of the Research Networks for Health Innovations in Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to salary payments, funding also covered costs for technical equipment and participation in important specialist conferences or training. The master’s and doctoral theses submitted by the junior researchers included subject areas such as microbiology, epidemiology as well as human and veterinary medicine. The research content of the five networks was focused on: the still unknown causes of widespread respiratory and digestive diseases (ANDEMIA); better understanding of the long-term effects of tuberculosis (TB Sequel); eradicating pork tapeworm, which causes severe damage in humans (CYSTINET-Africa); as well as establishing the research infrastructure for evidence-based medicine (CEBHA+), in particular for the widespread parasitic disease lymphatic filariasis and related secondary diseases, for example elephantiasis (TAKeOFF).

Junior researchers want to continue working in research in the long term

The researchers who receive funding are highly motivated to contribute to improving medical care in their respective countries in the long term. “I want to help improve public health in Mozambique using the skills I have gained as an independent researcher,” says Celso Khosa, who is researching lung damage caused by tuberculosis within the TB Sequel collaboration. Derrick Ansu Mensah from Ghana would like to “act as a health advocate worldwide, in particular for tropical diseases, and improve people’s health and quality of life.” Mensah is carrying out research into elephantiasis within the TAKeOFF network and will conclude his doctoral thesis in summer 2023. The junior researchers agree that in order to reach their goals, they want to continue their scientific work and to further develop their subject and management skills and thus become established in the international research community.

They unanimously agree that they would not be able to work exclusively in research without the financial support they receive. Many of the projects and studies they are responsible for would also not be viable without funding. “Field studies are particularly complex and expensive in terms of logistics and organisation – but without these studies we cannot make progress in health care,” explains Fredy Mlowe, a veterinarian within the CYSTINET-Africa network whose research focuses on the animal-to-human transmission of tapeworm larvae and their serious health implications.

Motivation thanks to teamwork and experience on the ground

Meeting participants and those affected in their local environment seems to have a lasting impact on the junior researchers. “What motivates me is definitely the joy I see in the faces of sick people when their quality of life improves significantly,” explains Vera Servaa Opoku, who is finishing her doctoral thesis in microbiology within the TAKeOFF network. Elephantiasis, the disease studied within this network, causes extreme and painful swelling of the limbs and is much feared because of its additional severe mental health and social implications.

During the practical phase, the junior researchers also gain important insight into everyday situations on the ground. “It is only through direct contact with sick people as well as with community representatives, doctors and nurses that we are able to implement the necessary measures,” explains Fredy Mlowe. Celso Khosa adds, “We have asked patients at TB Sequel about their experiences with the treatment. This has given us important feedback about the design of the therapy so that it can be successful.”

Teamwork and mutual exchange are another important source of motivation – whether with local team members or research partners. Christoph Leschczyk reports on the value that is added: “Monthly meetings with our partners from different locations allow us to discuss our findings and also the challenges of our daily work in the lab.” Leschczyk works within the TB Sequel network on developing more precise predictions on disease progression in tuberculosis. Ange Badjo from the ANDEMIA network also predominantly works in the laboratory. She describes what else motivates her: “Organising activities with clearly defined tasks for the day and learning new skills in the partner laboratories.”

Success thanks to capacity building and networking

Thanks to the research funding by the BMBF, the junior researchers have been able to gain a range of different skills and strengthen their own competences. These competences range from literature research and applying suitable lab technology to developing, planning and carrying out a research project, writing scientific publications or reports for licensing authorities and carrying out training for healthcare workers and lay people. It is very important, however, to connect with others and become part of a network. Many of those who receive funding agree with John Opoku, also a researcher at TAKeOFF, “The collaboration has changed my life. Being able to focus on my research, the exchange with internationally established scientists – all of this has had a profound impact on my career.”

Improving public health in southern Africa – this is the aim of the BMBF-funded Research Networks for Health Innovations in Sub-Saharan Africa. Expanding local research capacities through close German-African cooperation in health research contributes to achieving this aim. The networks have a particular focus on supporting next-generation scientists. Between 2017 and 2022, the BMBF provided funding worth over 55 million euros to five networks, which included 26 facilities in 14 African countries as well as ten German institutions. The collaborations were each headed by an African partner. A second funding phase starting in 2023 will see the continuation of two of the existing collaborations and the funding of four new networks.
Research Networks for Health Innovations in Sub-Saharan Africa