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Funds vital to enable researchers to work in Africa

CHANGING LIVES: An emerging African medical researcher who is supported by AREF in the lab

PROFESSOR TUMANI Corrah CBE is the UK Medical Research Council’s Director of Africa Research Development and Emeritus Director of its hospital and laboratory in The Gambia.

Tumani sits on many international advisory boards, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Public Health.

Throughout his career Tumani has pursued three passions: improving patient care in challenging environments, researching diseases that disproportionality affect developing countries and supporting the development of health researchers in Africa.

As founder and director of the Africa Research Excellence Fund (AREF), Tumani continues his quest to develop a new generation of outstanding African health researchers, working in Africa, for Africa. Tumani, better than anyone, understands the steps needed to tackle the unique challenges faced by the continent’s health researchers.

Those are namely how to be more competitive in winning funding to independently lead collaborations on national, continental and international research.

AREF gives much-needed support to bright, early-career African scientists at the most vulnerable point in their career. The charity provides the foundation for these young scientists and doctors to compete and win research funding to enable them to continue their career in Africa.

Since the charity began in 2015, AREF researchers have already succeeded in winning significant funding from organisations such as the Wellcome Trust, the European Union, the UK Department for International Development and Comic Relief. To continue this work, AREF seeks to raise £8 million by 2022.

Dr El Hadji Amadou Niang, Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), Senegal, working on breaking the cycle of malaria transmission

Having spent his career championing Africa and its people, Tumani has helped to enhance the stature of African medical research among the international scientific community.

AREF is at the forefront of the continent’s shift into an era of self-determination, one that will see local communities and local health care professionals confidently deciding for themselves how best to improve health in their region.

Tumani explains: “Africa disproportionately bears the brunt of the disease burden in the world. If we look at the recent outbreaks of Ebola in the region, it becomes clear Africa’s medical researchers and healthcare professionals rely heavily on Western colleagues to control outbreaks.

“With AREF’s support, it is hoped Africans will be better placed to diagnose emerging infections for themselves and reduce the likelihood of future widespread loss of life. Local researchers must be able to compete and win international funding to excel and rebalance representation at the highest levels of global health research.”

To improve healthcare in Africa, AREF strives to ensure that researchers have the skills, knowledge and experience to actively contribute as equal partners in international research efforts.

Today, the African continent needs more drug trials and patient data on diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure to better understand the roles played by ethnicity and the local environment in disease development and how best to manage these rapidly growing conditions.

Dr Pauline Bakibinga left her home in Uganda and moved to Kenya to focus on strengthening health care in slums where women have poor access to public health services.

Pauline commented: “The group of people I immediately identified as having an urgent need for better care is expectant mothers and newborns. Often women stay at home to give birth, where they have no support if there are any complications, endangering both mothers and babies. Death rates are unacceptably high.”

PICTURED: Dr Leopold D. Tientcheu with Dr Kinsley Badu and Dr Brenda Kwambena attending the Next Einstein Forum together

One of Pauline’s challenges was writing successful applications for funding. But after attending the African Research Excellence Fund Academy, Pauline learned how to write better funding applications, and importantly she learned about her competitors and how to pitch her research projects effectively.

A few months later, Pauline was successful in winning a six-figure grant from the UK’s Department for International Development and Comic Relief to begin her new project based in Garissa, a county in the north-east of Kenya, near the Somali border.

She is looking to improve maternal and neonatal health by involving the clan Elders.

She adds: “Ultimately, we want to stop so many women and babies dying needlessly. And it is thanks to AREF’s Academy training that I now have the funding I need to achieve this ambition.”

Dr El Hadji Niang wanted to be a scientist from a young age. He studied Natural Sciences at the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, Senegal.

Then, while looking for a summer placement, he found an opportunity to study insects that have an impact on human health. El Hadji received one of the first African Research Excellence Fund Research Development Fellowships.

Professor Tumani Corrah CBE in discussion with Dr Oluwafemi Akande of Federal University of Technology, Minna, Nigeria, AREF Fellow Dr Seynabou Sougoufara of Unité de Recherche sur les Maladies et Tropicales Emergentes, University Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), Senegal, AREF Fellow Dr El Hadji Amadou Niang of Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), Senegal and AREF Fellow Dr Seraphine Esemu, Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases, University of Buea, Cameroon; Dr Seraphine Esemu finding a solution to Buruli ulcers, a major and growing health challenge in Cameroon

This enabled him to spend time working in the UK at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine learning techniques in mapping the genome of mosquitoes.

He is now carrying out research in France and Senegal on how to break the life-cycle of malaria. El Hadji explained: “The AREF Fellowship was a huge stepping stone for me.

“The most important way it helped was to allow me to develop connections and enable me to form collaborations.

“It is these collaborations that will help me apply for my own funding.”

El Hadji was recently awarded money by the UK’s Wellcome Trust to continue as a research leader in Senegal.

Depression is increasingly being recognised as a significant and largely-neglected condition in Africa. However, patients are rarely identified and treated. The reasons often given are huge patient numbers and medical staff shortages.


Conventional tools for assessing depression requires patients to have good literacy skills. But this is challenging in Africa, where one-third of patients can’t read or write.

Dr Dickens Akena is a psychiatrist and lecturer at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, and during his PhD studies, Dickens developed a visual scale, comprised of pictures, that can be used to detect depression in people with low literacy.

IN THE FIELD: Dr El Hadji Amadou Niang conducting research

Dickens was awarded the Africa Research Excellence Fund Research Development Fellowship for his project to learn new methods in psychometrics, and apply this knowledge to develop multiple scales for detection of mental illnesses in people with low literacy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dickens said: “The AREF Fellowship enabled me to be mentored at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and at the UK’s Medical Research Council / Uganda Virus Research Institute Research Unit on AIDS, in Entebbe, Uganda – giving me the knowledge to progress my research.”

The Africa Research Excellence Fund is grateful to receive wonderful support from individuals and organisations including Medical Research Foundation, Medical Research Council, The Wellcome Trust, Vitol Foundation, Robert Bosch Foundation, Farrar Foundation and West Africa Health Organisation.

African researchers are in many ways best equipped to contribute to better health outcomes in their own countries, not least because of their linguistic knowledge, understanding of social and cultural challenges and appreciation of how technology can best be used to transform Africa’s health challenges.

AREF is beginning to enable more talented medical researchers to remain in Africa and carry out their vital work.

Later this week (May 25) countries on the continent as well as around the world will be celebrating Africa Day.

And you can use this as an opportunity to raise money and provide a stepping stone to fund an African Health Researcher to reach their full potential.

Find out more about AREF at africaresearch

Maria Andrews is head of Major Gifts at AREF.

How to donate
Please contribute to saving lives for generations to come. You can use the donate button at africa researchexcellencefund., where 100 per cent of your donation will go to AREF. Or you can donate by:

Bank transfer
Lloyds TSB Account name: Africa Research Excellence fund Account number: 30044168 Sort code: 30-97-81 IBAN: GB91LOYD30978130044168 SWIFT: LOYDGB21034

Please make the cheque payable to Africa Research Excellence Fund and send to: Africa Research Excellence Fund, c/o Medical Research Foundation, 49-51 East Road, London N1 6AH, UK

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