Mauritian President supports African Genomic Research

For too long, Africa’s resources have been traded as raw material. Yet, the transformation of these resources and the translation of its ancestral knowledge could transform the continent. 

Empowering the youth with the necessary tools and new knowledge will help the continent leapfrog its developmental challenges. However, for this to take place, scientists and policy makers need to talk to each other. The public also needs to be made aware of the impact of the research work being carried out in universities and research centres.

Such dialogue will change the narrative of leaders and invest in research and research infrastructure that will help not only attract the diaspora to the continent but encourage young talented Africans to stay on the continent to work as opposed to leaving for greener pastures.

Mauritian President Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (third from the right, front row) poses with a team scientists at the Ninth Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) conference at Le Meridien Resort in Mauritius on 29th October 2016.

This was the message from the President of Mauritius, Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, in her opening address of the Ninth Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) conference at Le Meridien Resort in Mauritius, 29th October 2016.  President Gurib-Fakim, herself an internationally renowned scientist who has been working in the field of biodiversity, highlighted the role of the H3Africa consortium on Africa’s development agenda.

H3Africa is an initiative of the African Society of Human Genetics and has emerged as a partnership with funding agencies like the National Institute of Health (USA) and the Wellcome Trust (UK). 

The primary interests of H3Africa are:

(i) exploring the rich human genetic diversity on the continent,

(ii) human capacity development,

(iii) technological infrastructure development,

(iv) biobanking,

(v) knowledge (data) generation and sharing;

(vi) training the next generation of scientists and

(vii) community engagement. 

Projects funded include themes such as chronic and infectious diseases including TB, cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke), psychiatric and neurological disease, viral diseases and podoconiosis, a neglected tropical disease. (www.h3africa.org).

Africa’s colonial history has meant that research collaborations are often between the colonial powers and African institutions with very little intra-African collaboration. 

H3Africa is bridging that gap by encouraging African scientists to work together either individually or through Pan African networks, with foreign researchers who will add special skills and technologies as part of the development programme of the research group. 

With a view to developing the research ecosystem, funding is being made available, not through a UK or USA principal investigator, but directly to an African researcher at African institutions – with the requirement that all of the relevant administrative/financial management structures are of an international standard. 

To date, research in 28 African countries is funded, with a very lively network of researchers moving between research institutions, improving brain circulation – with a major commitment on training the next generation of researchers/scientists. 

Access is provided to the state of the art research facilities in the UK and the USA – as the technological infrastructure in Africa is being developed. 

The funding was made available since 2012, with researchers having to meet every 6 months in a different African country.  This is in recognition of the need for bringing awareness to local governments/academic institutions.

It was in this context that, while appreciating the honest effort in H3Africa to engage fully with communities in which they are doing research, Her Excellency Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim emphasised the need for the genomics academic community to increase their efforts of knowledge translation in order inform the community, governments, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and the commercial sector. 

The current funding Agencies, NIH and Wellcome Trust, have been encouraged  at the progress in all of the H3A projects to the extent they have both put out calls for a further 5-year cycle funding. 

What was emphasised by Dr Gurib-Fakim is the need for African governments to match donor support to what the H3Africa initiative is bringing – on the continent where humanity has its origins – and its greatest diversity.