African women scientists are changing the face of their continent

by MMC
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Veronica Okello examines samples in her laboratory at Machakos University, Kenya

Chemist Veronica Okello from Machakos University in Kenya urges young researchers to be less shy, express their views and approach professors for professional opportunities.Credit: Esther Sweeney for Nature

African women scientists are enterprising and resourceful. They find innovative solutions to problems affecting their communities, and many actively seek to involve others in their work. But for more women on the continent to succeed in science, they need policies that help reduce barriers to their success and encourage international collaborations. These are the conclusions of a special series of articles in Nature, as well as a survey to which 249 African researchers responded. The majority (217) work in African countries and 103 are identified as women.

Our series shows that women working in research in African countries are thriving: they are founding companies, launching nonprofit science education efforts, training the next generation of scientists, and joining ministries of health, Agriculture and Space of their country.

They understand Khady Sall in Senegal, which carried out a project in 2020 to manufacture face shields against COVID-19, and Véronique Okello in Kenya, which is researching green approaches to cleaning up heavy metals such as chromium and arsenic. We also profile Aster Tsegayean HIV/AIDS researcher who helps train researchers in Ethiopia, and Elizabeth Kimani Muragewhich studies malnutrition in urban communities in Nairobi.

Pontsho Maruping moved from his work in the South African mining sector to contributing to the development of the country’s astronomy and space programme. In the meantime, Angela Tabiri in Ghana studies quantum algebra and founded a network of women mathematicians. Adidja Amani helps manage vaccination programs at Cameroon’s Ministry of Public Health and a Nigerian microbiologist Amina Ahmed El-Imam studies the production of fuels from microorganisms.

A lot too working towards community empowerment, contribute to making science known to a wider audience or work to strengthen scientific education. And their achievements often came after a period of study or research abroad – a finding echoed in our survey. Of the 103 women in our survey, 59 had studied abroad; their reasons for doing so included gaining international experience, building professional networks, and returning specific expertise.

It is also clear from the profiles that many women made enormous personal sacrifices to obtain their doctorates: those who studied abroad and are mothers, for example, often spent months at a time away from their children, leaving them in the care of others. , like fathers and grandparents.

African women face greater barriers to developing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) than women in high-income countries, with lack of funding a particular problem. Some challenges, however, will be familiar to women everywhere. Many women need to take time off for pregnancy, maternity leave and breastfeeding, and women also tend to take on a greater share of household chores and childcare.

Additionally, some women said Nature that they have not been promoted as quickly as their male counterparts, even though they publish at the same rate and contribute as much funding and research equipment to their institutions as men. The reasons vary, but include being evaluated according to outdated criteria. Often, for example, no adjustments are made to account for gaps in publications and funding records that result from women’s parental leave. Even if the gender gap narrows, the World Economic Forum predicts that at current rates it could take 95 years in sub-Saharan Africa (go.nature.com/3i9oxb9).

Our series also illustrates the impacts of chronic funding shortages in Africa and the ingenuity required to move many projects forward. In countries where universities do not have access to national grant programs, some researchers and students pool funds from their salaries to purchase reagents and small equipment. They are willing to make these and other sacrifices, knowing that the research experience will make them valuable and benefit their communities.

African researchers are in dire need of stable, long-term investments from internal and external funding sources, including venture capital. In our survey, 56% of respondents (122 out of 217) working in science in Africa cited lack of funding as their biggest career challenge, and it was the top concern for both men and women. Work-life balance was the second most mentioned concern by women. If only African governments and the international donor community could do more to help scientists realize their ambitions: even modest increases in funding could go a long way to accelerating nation-building.

That said, some continent-wide initiatives are helping to address the systemic challenges facing women scientists in Africa. Since 2011, the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA), based in Nairobi, has sponsored 228 doctoral and postdoctoral fellows, 57% of whom are women, in several countries. CARTA has two women at its head: co-directors Catherine Kyobutungi and Sharon Fonn.

Similarly, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) is a pan-African network of centers that has trained nearly 2,500 students in intensive and residential master’s programs in mathematics, and more than 800 of them have gone on to obtain a Ph.D. AIMS is led by educator Lydie Hakizimana and its main goals are to increase the number of mathematics students on the continent and the representation of women in STEM fields. A third of its former students are women.

These networks are further strengthened when researchers from high-income countries, which generally have more mature scientific infrastructures, become involved. Researchers from these countries have an important role to play in collaborating with researchers from Africa.

Such partnerships would benefit scientists not only in Africa, but around the world. African researchers are leaders in their fields; Scientists from the continent can also bring new perspectives, informed by their knowledge and experiences, to research projects. International collaboration must be more common. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, such exchanges can take place seamlessly on virtual platforms. The number of African women scientists is on the rise – and partnering with them could yield astronomical results.

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