7 January 2014

Africa: A New Horizon for African-European Research Links

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Thanks to the project, his lab acquired modern equipment that enabled agricultural waste products such as cassava peel and stalks to be used as an alternative substrate for mushroom production, he adds.

In addition, the project's benefits will extend to future generations: for example, Sanni's research group was able to use the funds to train 12 master's students and hire two PhD students during the project.

Not charity

However, boosting science capacity in Africa is merely a side effect of FP7's open, collaborative approach; the programme's main focus lies elsewhere.

"It's a European programme, not a collaboration programme with Africa," so it is logical that most funding goes to the EU, says Daan du Toit, senior science and technology representative for the South African Department of Science and Technology to the EU in Brussels, Belgium. "As much as we [South Africans] promote it and are enthusiastic about it, it's not a magic instrument for all."

Just like under FP7, Horizon 2020 projects will be selected based on their scientific merits. This means the funding goes to the best researchers - not to those who most need the money. The EU has separate programmes aimed specifically at capacity building, such as the European Development Fund, du Toit says.

"It's not charity," he says. African scientists who want to take part in an EU-funded project must show what they can contribute. "It used to happen that science collaboration was just about collecting data and samples in Africa; now Africans play a more active and meaningful role," he adds.

In terms of science cooperation between Europe and Africa, South Africa is ahead of the rest of the continent, and the European Commission itself cites the country as an example to follow.

Out of the €178 million of EU funding that went to African participants under FP7, €37.3 million went to South Africa, far above Egypt (€16.1 million), Morocco, Tunisia and Kenya - the other top recipients of EU funding.

The South African government encourages its researchers to take part in FP7 projects that match its own national priorities. For example, the EU covers three-quarters of a project's eligible costs and, in South Africa, the government covers the remainder for South African organisations.

Du Toit adds that it is smart for the country to invest in international projects that the EU's expert panels have chosen for their scientific quality. "If they select a proposal, we can have confidence in the evaluation and monitoring process," he says.

Another reason behind South Africa's success under FP7 is that the government provides information and support to its scientists through so-called National Contact Points (contact people trained to provide specific information and guidance on EU funding opportunities) as well as funding for researchers to travel and form alliances with scientists in Europe, says Hogan.

The European Commission encourages other African countries to set up tailored support to help their scientists benefit from the EU funding. "You need a system in place where people who have a good understanding [of the programme] are responsible for disseminating the information," says du Toit.

Being proactive

On a more personal level, Sanni and Asiru believe African researchers should proactively seek guidance and opportunities.

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