Mighty oaks from little acorns grow – Research Consulting’s work to strengthen research systems in Africa

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In January, Research Consulting started a ten-month project to help the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in assessing the research needs of seven Sub-Saharan African countries and looking at ways to strengthen their research systems. This is Research Consulting’s furthest-reaching project to date, and we are delivering in collaboration with Consort Strategy and SARIMA.

Research capacity strengthening (RCS) in low- and medium-income countries (LMICs) is a well-established area of international development work, with interventions dating back several decades. It is based on recognising the role of research in driving innovation and promoting long-term economic and social development in less affluent countries. Comparatively speaking, however, it is still less established than other areas of development assistance and it has often been focused on specific disciplines such health and agriculture. Our project takes a bird’s-eye view of the issue, assessing the effectiveness of past interventions across the developing world, regardless of the discipline or the stakeholder involved. It then seeks to identify the needs of the research systems in seven Sub-Saharan African countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

A complex challenge

From the outset, it was clear that conducting such a large study on RCS was going to be a difficult undertaking. That is not just because the research systems are complex puzzles with lots of moving parts, but also because much of the underlying dynamics regulating relationships between stakeholders are difficult to uncover and tend to differ substantially between national contexts. To meet these challenges, we assembled a team that combines Research Consulting’s expertise in research management, open science and knowledge exchange, with Consort Strategy’s knowledge of RCS in Sub-Saharan Africa and SARIMA’s extensive understanding of the African research and innovation ecosystem. Three months into the project, the pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together, and we are confident that the study will add useful insights to this complex issue.

What happens next?

We have just concluded a review of over 220 studies exploring RCS interventions for research systems and research organisations in LMICs. The next phase of work will focus on assessing the needs of our in-scope countries. Building on the evidence emerging from the literature, we are working to refine the project scope by identifying priority areas for our field investigation. The key questions we need to answer now are:

  • What does the research system look like in each target country?
  • What are the key stakeholders and processes that DFID should be aware of?
  • What are the main constraints and limitations to research?
  • What opportunities exist to strengthen the research system and specific research organisations?

To answer these questions, we are embarking on a systematic programme of in-country visits across Africa to conduct interviews with a range of local stakeholders. Our Principal Consultant, Mattia Fosci, Consort’s Andrew Chamberlain and SARIMA’s Nelisha Naidoo have undertaken a pilot visit to Kenya at the end of March. The trip has helped us understand the sort of challenges we will face looking forward – and how best to prepare for the upcoming visits. The team will return to Kenya in late May, followed by Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania. This will be followed by a second set of visits to Nigeria, Ghana, and finally, Uganda.

We are hoping to carry out up to eight informant interviews in each country, and combine that we meetings with other RCS organisations based in the global North. Our conversation will cover the current state of research in each country, understand the cultural, political and environmental contexts in which research actors operate, and learn about how research fits within wider national development strategies.


By October, we will produce seven country reports and a summary report for DFID. We are cautiously optimistic that the evidence we gather from desk and field research will shed a light on the challenges and opportunities faced in our target countries. If we do our job well, we will help inform DFID’s RCS activities in Africa and beyond, supporting the agenda for sustainable development and a culture of innovation and openness across the developing world. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

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