African Science Initiative

To Leave or to Stay? The Academic Landscape in Kenya


Whatsapp groups have become the most common form of group communication in this era. I happen to be part of one such group that comprises of my former primary school classmates, the 98’ alumni, we proudly call ourselves. Most times we reminisce about funny stuff from Mr. Ali’s beard, the teacher who made sure we all ‘loved’ mathematics by caning the hell out of us, to Ms. Dora the music teacher who loved to dress in red. On this day however, there is extra excitement. Someone has shared a link discussing changes in legislation in a European country that will allow for immigrants to hold jobs in that country.

The great artistic Oma says he will be happier abroad, even if it means settling for a guard’s job. He has been trying to get a green card for the last 6 years. Tamari too, will be happy to emigrate even if it means that she will need to work three jobs a day in order to make ends meet. I, on the other hand, want to stay.

See, several years ago after I was awarded my PhD, I had to carefully think about my options. Kenya is said to be among the most educated countries in Africa. Despite this, there are not enough institutions that can employ a PhD holder. There is a great mismatch between the need for this level of trained personnel and the availability of suitable positions to absorb them. Recent statistics indicate that Kenya (with a population of over 48 million) has only about 10,000 PhD holders. To plug this gap the country needs about 1000 new PhDs each year, however only produces about 300 PhD graduates annually.  I wanted to continue with my career in research, but with only limited options in Kenya, I had no choice but to consider options abroad.

And so, the search began. I sent my applications all over the world, interviewed for countless positions, and most importantly, read a lot on life abroad; work-life balance, family, quality of life, social support, etc. - the non-academic stuff that life is made of. This was especially important for me because as a single mother with a then about 1-year old son, I needed to be sure that we would survive if I decided to go abroad. But the more I read, the less convinced I was that such a move was feasible.

“Is your husband rich? If not, you will get super broke!” advised one of my mentors. She had unfortunately experienced the same years before.

The cost of living was high and childcare support was greatly lacking, not just from the financial aspect, but also the social networks that we get accustomed to in Africa. So change of plan. I decided to stay.

After about half a year of joblessness, I was lucky to get a job as a university lecturer. I cannot pretend that I was at all prepared for this new challenge. I had imagined that someday, maybe towards my retirement, I would have joined a university as a don, in the twilight of my research career. My first class comprised of about 100 students.

Tall pimply boy with a bad attitude, sweet looking girl preoccupied with planning her next date, the one with blue braids, and the eager class representative who wanted a course outline and notes covering all the topics for the semester.

“There is no way we can cover all this in a semester!” he said.

 Not to mention the over 300 scripts I needed to mark at the end of the semester.

“Where will the time to do any research come from? Is that why research is dead in our institutions of higher learning?” I wondered. Teaching and administration duties typically take up to 90% of the working time for lecturers in Kenyan Universities. This is further compounded by a poor research culture resulting in poor access to research funds. Therefore, while research remains one of the main mandates of most Kenyan universities, it remains dormant.

This scene is thankfully changing. Many local universities are establishing collaborations with national and international research organizations, a move that is likely to shift the research foci back to the universities. For instance, Pwani University, in collaboration with KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme and funding from the Wellcome Trust have a well-equipped molecular biology laboratory, PUBReC where students and staff can carry out high end research in a number of fields including marine biology, plant biology and Health Sciences. Similarly, other universities such the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, Meru University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Technology have high end research laboratories on their campuses, all aimed at improving the research output from local universities. Such institutions are now mushrooming all over Africa: Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) in South Africa, an institution associated with the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, WACCBIP in Ghana, associated with University of Ghana and Uganda Virus Research Institute, associated with Makerere University among many others.

In the same way, international funding bodies have now linked up to provide tailored funding at the local scene, a scenario that will hopefully result in increased funding available for locally-based researchers, as well as provide the support required to win and manage such funds. These institutions include the Nairobi-based AESA, which is housed under the African Academy of Sciences, RUFORUM, AWARD, WIOMSA, WHO and AU among others. These bodies are also encouraging collaboration across disciplines in the development of home-grown solutions to Africa’s problems.

Hence, there is not a better time to be an African researcher, in Africa.

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Still, many continue to leave. And many more refuse to come back home. Dzua is working in the United States. She is not planning on returning home.

“Life is good.” She says.

Kejeli wants to leave too. Even if it is just for the clean roads, he will do anything to get to the land of opportunity.

I say, “Africa may be the land of greatest need, but it is also the land of greatest possibilities”

Dr. Cheryl Andisi Kivisi

This blog post has first been published on African Science Initiative.


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