Over the past year, I've channeled considerable resources and energy into transforming a former peanut butter factory into a research lab. Fueled by a vision to spearhead cutting-edge discovery research in Africa, my goal is for this lab to eventually generate novel intellectual property capable of advancing healthcare on the continent. Yet, the path to realizing this dream is fraught with challenges. As I ponder the bootstrap model that has sustained us so far, I find myself compelled to consider how the journey can be made less arduous for emerging African scientists who share the same ambitions.
In an era that recognizes the centrality of science and technology to societal advancement, Africa stands as both a promising frontier and a complex puzzle. With one of the fastest-growing populations worldwide, the continent is experiencing a surge of economically empowered citizens, many of whom cannot rely on governmental healthcare services and must bear medical expenses themselves. Often, these individuals find financial support from relatives in the diaspora, heightening expectations for both the quality and efficacy of medical interventions. This changing landscape of demand and access to health information places us at a watershed moment. It's imperative for African scientists to lead the charge in exploring diseases most relevant to local populations, particularly those that don't present lucrative prospects for Western pharmaceutical companies. This mission is not just locally significant; it holds global relevance. Representing among the most genetically diverse groups on Earth, Africans provide an indispensable piece to the puzzle of human biology. Without more extensive research into health and disease in these populations, our collective understanding remains incomplete. However, as we strive to meet these goals, African scientists must navigate a daunting maze of obstacles that hinder innovation in the region.
One of the most formidable obstacles in advancing scientific research in Africa is the lack of ready-to-use infrastructure. Having observed the flourishing biotech ecosystems in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and South San Francisco, the disparity is glaring. In these innovation hubs, entrepreneurial scientists can effortlessly rent bench space in facilities equipped with centralized, cutting-edge technologies. However, the African context presents a stark contrast: here, one cannot simply rent a lab bench; one must build the entire infrastructure from the ground up.
Consider the challenge of energy supply, for instance. While scientists in more developed settings take uninterrupted power for granted, those in Africa must invest heavily in alternative energy solutions. Tens of thousands of dollars are often spent importing solar panels or procuring backup generators to ensure a stable energy supply for vital equipment, such as ultra-low-temperature freezers. The inability to depend on local power utilities becomes not just an inconvenience but a profound setback that places African scientists at a competitive disadvantage.
Similarly, access to a reliable water supply, which is often a given in Western labs, becomes another hurdle to overcome in Africa. Implementing independent water supply systems is not merely expensive but also indispensable for the efficient operation of a lab. The absence of this basic utility requires another layer of planning and investment, further stretching already scarce resources.
An additional significant hurdle comes in the form of lab consumables, which rarely, if ever, are produced locally. This necessitates importation, often through middleman distributors who prioritize high profit margins over the growth of the scientific industry. Just last week, we received a quote for filter tips costing an astounding $.11 per tip. Given that multiple polymerase chain reactions (PCRs) can consume hundreds of these tips daily, the expenses quickly escalate into the thousands of dollars. Similarly, the cost for cryo-labels essential for properly identifying freezer tubes stood at $.28 per label. When storing a multitude of samples, this translates to substantial expenditures just for ensuring efficient retrieval and accurate labeling.
This cost issue is further exacerbated by international suppliers, who show minimal interest in direct business relations with African scientists. Instead, they funnel inquiries through local distributors, introducing inefficiencies like prolonged periods for quotes and exorbitant pricing. These layers of complexity not only inflate costs but also severely impede the competitiveness of local researchers.
Another formidable obstacle lies in the maintenance of service contracts for specialized equipment. Cutting-edge scientific research frequently demands the use of high-cost instrumentation, often running into hundreds of thousands of dollars. While an initial grant may cover the purchase price, sustaining service contracts—which themselves can cost tens of thousands of dollars—remains a challenge. Research laboratories must therefore budget for sufficient overhead to cover these ongoing expenses. Yet, allocating adequate overhead in research grants can be particularly problematic for African institutions.
Compounding this issue are potential delays in service call-out times. Furthermore, these services are sometimes outsourced to local engineers whose expertise may not match that of their counterparts in more developed markets, where a broader spectrum of troubleshooting experience is often the norm. This divergence in service quality poses additional risks and inefficiencies, further impeding the progress of scientific research in the region.
Another substantial impediment to scientific progress is the scarcity of government support that goes beyond grant funding. In many instances, African governments have fallen short of their stated goal to allocate at least 1% of GDP towards research and development. Not only do they generally fail to provide their own research institutions or independent entities with access to competitive grants, but they also neglect other vital avenues of support. While grants are important, they represent just one facet of the multi-dimensional support needed to build a thriving bioeconomy. The absence of this broader backing represents a missed opportunity for governments to catalyze bioeconomic development in various ways. These could include tax incentives for research and development, expedited and streamlined regulatory processes, and the minimization of bureaucratic red tape that often hampers innovation.
As scientists throughout the continent persist in their efforts to bolster research capabilities, we are all deeply cognizant of the numerous obstacles we face. Yet, imbued with the indomitable African ethos of 'always making a plan,' we are confident that we and many others will persevere and build locally owned, globally collaborative and sustainable organizations. Nevertheless, it's imperative that those with the power to effect change—be it governments, municipalities, or global industry leaders — extend their support to initiatives that aim to transform the region. With a population exceeding one billion, there is no reason why Africa cannot pioneer novel therapeutics, vaccines, and medical devices to improve health outcomes across various medical fields, from infectious diseases to oncology. While the obstacles are daunting and may take decades to overcome, strategic and intentional investments today can pave the way for a thriving bioeconomy in Africa. The time for collective action is now; only through concerted effort can we build a more viable scientific landscape on the continent.
Tariro Makadzange is an Infectious Disease Physician and Vaccine Immunologist with a wealth of experience spanning Africa, U.S. academia, and industry. She is at the forefront of establishing an African-led research organization focused on clinical trials, clinical research, implementation science, and discovery laboratory research.