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African science is not cheap

According to an article published on Research, import duties, shipping and servicing costs often mean scientists in Africa pay more to conduct research than their counterparts in Europe.

With scientists’ salaries in Africa tending to be lower than in rich countries, it has been easy for funders to assume research can be done cheaply on the continent. But that is far from the truth. Science in Africa is expensive—and the poorest countries usually run up the highest costs.

This poses a great challenge to African researchers submitting budgets to international donors. Sometimes they are accused of inflating costs. At other times, unforeseen expenses mean researchers have to look for additional funding. This also often results in projects not being completed within the planned timeframe.

“High research costs in Africa are often not foreseen by project partners in Europe and the funders. I know many examples where the researchers had to wait for additional funding to complete their research. It causes delays,” explains Christoff Pauw, manager for international academic networks at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Perplexingly, the poorest countries can face the highest costs. Francine Ntoumi, a health researcher based in Congo-Brazaviile, received a European grant in 2009 to conduct clinical trials on tuberculosis and malaria. This enabled her to buy a –80 degrees Celsius freezer for storing biological material, the first in the country.

Electricity cuts, however, meant she needed a generator to ensure that the biological material didn’t thaw during outages. But setting up the generator wasn’t easy. It needed an electricity system that the university didn’t have and for which she hadn’t budgeted, forcing her to look for additional funding.

Even where costs can be predicted, it can sometimes be difficult to get funders to accept them, she says:

“Things are very expensive in Congo. Chairs are expensive here, but of poor quality. When you tell a funder their cost they think you want to buy a fancy chair when it’s one of poor quality.”

Importing equipment and reagents from overseas also drives up research costs in South Africa, says Nelson Ijumba, deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. To make matters worse, prices are subject to currency valuations, making costs difficult to predict, he says.

Berhanu Abegaz, executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, says that sometimes price of equipment is higher for African buyers than for their counterparts in the US or Europe.

“I had a short teaching stint at Boston University in the ‘80s. While I was there I enquired about magnetic resonance Imaging. They quoted it to me at US$100,000. When I went back to Ethiopia and placed an order they said the same machine was US$200,000. When I queried, they said they don’t offer the same price to Africa as the US—I think because the market there is competitive, unlike in Africa,” he says.

Read more on Research

Tagged in: Africa Research
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