Improving the Quality and Quantity of Scientific Research in Africa


  • Between 2003 and 2012, African researchers more than doubled their production of research in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-based fields.
  • A new report highlights improvements in STEM research outputs in Africa, but suggests that the pace and quality of research need to be stepped up further.
  • STEM research makes up only 29% of Africa’s total research output, despite the need for more research on energy, transport, light manufacturing, and the extractives.

WASHINGTON, September 30, 2014—With new discoveries of oil and natural gas in Africa, increasing flows of foreign direct investment, and the continent’s urgent need for power and infrastructure, is Africa producing enough science-based research? A new report from the World Bank and science publisher Elsevier looks at Africa’s research performance over a decade, what it means for the continent’s development and how it can benefit the growing number of young people who leave university each year looking for jobs.

While African researchers produce only 1 percent of the world’s research, the report shows that the quality and quantity of that research is improving. Between 2003 and 2012, African researchers more than doubled their outputs, producing papers on subjects ranging from HIV, to cancer to climate change to ageing. A significant number of the peer-reviewed articles received international citations, a measure of the importance and quality of the research.

" “…STEM research should also be a priority and that raising the capacity of institutions to produce valuable research in science and engineering could help transform Africa and generate broad gains to society. "

George Lan


“The share of work coming from East, West and Southern Africa is rising steadily,” says Andreas Blom, Lead Education Specialist at the World Bank and co-author of the report A Decade of Development in Sub Saharan African Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Research. “African governments realize the importance of creating, using and sharing knowledge to build human capital and as a key driver of economic growth.”   

Most research in Africa focuses on agriculture and the health sciences, as the continent is battling serious diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, and most recently the Ebola epidemic. But missing from the equation is research in the physical sciences and in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) based fields.  STEM research makes up only 29% of Sub Saharan Africa’s output, leaving a gap in many countries’ ability to enhance sectors like energy, transport, light manufacturing and the extractive industries. Yet progress in these sectors could transform Africa’s economies and help end poverty. 

The problem for much of Sub Saharan Africa: a low quality of basic education in science and math, a higher education system skewed toward disciplines like the humanities and social sciences, and low levels of international funding that focus heavily on health and agricultural research.

“Agriculture and health are certainly critical,” says George Lan, Analytical Product Manager at Elsevier and the report’s co-author. “What we are saying is that STEM research should also be a priority and that raising the capacity of institutions to produce valuable research in science and engineering could help transform Africa and generate broad gains to society. For instance, Africa has vast natural resources but too little capacity to take the lead on their extraction, production and sale.”

In addition to benefitting countries and the region as a whole, improving the quality of higher education in STEM fields would benefit millions of youth entering the job market each year in Africa. More than 50 percent of Africa’s population is below the age of 25. Given this youth bulge, more young people need to acquire training and expertise to prepare them for jobs in fields like ICT and agricultural sciences.

Some countries have made headway, according to the report. In Uganda, the Millennium Science Initiative, a US$33 million investment aimed at producing more and better qualified science and engineering graduates, helped increase the number of Ugandan researchers from 261 to 720.and the number of Master’s students more than doubled.

" The overall goal here is to produce a larger and more qualified STEM workforce in Africa that can find solutions to Africa’s development challenges. "

Andreas Blom

Lead Education Specialist at the World Bank

The report finds that overall:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa has greatly increased both the quantity and quality of its research output.
  • SSA research output in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) lags behind that of other subject areas significantly.
  • SSA, especially East Africa and Southern Africa, relies heavily on international collaboration and visiting faculty for their research output.
  • Research collaboration in Africa features a number of particular characteristics that are critical to understand in order to design successful policies.

It recommends the following:

  • African governments and development partners accelerate support to research and research-based education in Africa to build the necessary human capital to further increase research on solving African problems by Africans for Africans.
  • Accelerate and persistently pursue policies to improve the quality and quantity of teaching of STEM at all levels of the education system, including for research and research-based education.
  • Systematically scale up support to STEM disciplines at the higher education and research level through, for example: bilateral university collaborations, post-graduate scholarships, and encouraging international firms to contribute to the development of STEM capacity in Africa.
  • Coordinate higher education strategies with development needs and rigorously implement priorities through effective funding instruments.
  • Continue international collaboration, and scale-up collaboration within STEM.
  • Scale-up post-graduate education in Africa – possibly through regional collaboration.
  • Continue scholarship funding for studies in Africa, possibly through “sandwich-programs” to ensure international exposure and include funding support to raise the quality of the African post-graduate program.