Young Scientists

Comeback kids: why African researchers are returning to Africa - or not

The panellists at the SFSA session : from left to right, Anton Le Roex, Tantely Razafimbelo, Luc Allemand and Patience Mthunzi-Kufa

Going abroad is useful for training as a scientist, especially for Africans. But returning is not so easy, as discussed in Pretoria in december 2017.

“Young people fall in love.”

This sentiment, expressed by a researcher talking about the experiences of young researchers, may as well have been about studying abroad. It is something that many up-and-coming researchers fall in love with, and with good reason.

A general reluctance to come back

Overseas work and study attracts many young African researchers looking to gain experience and opportunities for advanced research. For many, it seems, the allure keeps them abroad: for those who fly out, many are reluctant to return to the continent.

A panel discussion at the Science Forum South Africa in December 2017, chaired by Luc Allemand of (and linked to the YASE meeting), highlighted a lack of employment opportunities and the difficulties of being a female researcher among other issues affecting young African scientists.

A more favorable environment

“According to University News, one of every 10 people studying abroad are from Africa - twice the global average,” said Anton Le Roex, Dean of the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Science, emphasising the reasons driving numbers of African graduates to seek work outside the continent. “There is a perception that the value of and respect for science is much greater abroad than it is in Africa, and that the continent needs to create a more favourable environment.”

Talking about her own experience abroad, panellist Tantely Razafimbelo of the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar said, “I tell my students to take the opportunity to study abroad since it opens your mind, but I ask them to please come back.” She is one of the few who have returned to Madagascar (she got her PhD in France), and said that most of her colleagues stay abroad “for fear of not finding a job with a good salary”.

African scientists are attractive

The lure of overseas study can go both ways, as South African researcher Patience Mthunzi-Kufa found out when she caught the eye of a university in Scotland. “Everyone wants to be around smart, driven people, and that made me attractive to them,” she says.

The audience in attendance also had some comments to add to the discussion. Anicia Peters, Dean of the Faculty of Computing and Informatics at the Namibia University of Science and Technology, got her PhD in the United States and returned to Namibia.

Finding a job at home

“I took my PhD in the US. I was focused on coming back, but I know that for a lot of us it wasn’t that easy to come back,” she said. “What do you come back as at the universities? If you were not as lucky as I was to be on leave, it meant you would have to search for jobs while still working, which is never easy.”

“At the faculty we actively encourage our students, the brightest and the best, to go overseas. What we are certain of, is that Namibians return,” said Peters. “We also encourage our staff to go and study abroad because they bring back an infusion of new research and new practices.”

Good reasons to return

This is perhaps the best argument for African researchers to return - they can add great value through their international experience and contacts. This can lead to new grants, new collaborations and new breakthroughs.

Peters argues that African countries need to do more for their academic diaspora. “Young people end up being uncertain about where to make their home. That uncertainty needs to be removed, so when they return they know what they will come back as and they know the research and the environment they are returning to.”

More respect needed

Le Roex agreed, saying that the continent needs to give more value and respect to its young researchers by creating a favourable environment. He said that things such as good infrastructure and job opportunities can give a researcher something attractive to come back to.

Some of those who have returned, came back to greener pastures of their own making, bringing with them much needed skills and knowledge from abroad. This includes Razafimbelo, who returned to Madagascar to become a full professor at her university and director of her own lab.

To make an impact

From poor job prospects to the unique issues faced by African women researchers, there seems to be more things keeping young African researchers away than opportunities to bring them back. For those who have returned, however the potential to bring about real change and make an impact on the continent are prime reasons keeping them in Africa.

These researchers have also started to realise that in order for research in Africa to progress, they must themselves facilitate this growth. While opportunities for growth exist abroad, young researchers are aware that Africa is full opportunities for growth and great scientific and social change.

Talents that enrich the continent

As such, Mthunzi-Kufa never lost sight of her desire to come back home and change things: it encouraged her to finish her PhD in Scotland and return to the continent. Now, she leads the biophotonics research lab at the Center for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

While many opportunities are available abroad, it seems that many excellent researchers are choosing to come back to enrich the continent with their talents. The continent may have fewer resources than the global North, but talented, young researchers who return are the lifeblood of scientific research in Africa.

As long as Africa retains these brilliant scientists, the future looks so bright for the continent that future researchers will have no need to find other opportunities abroad.

Sibusiso Biyela, ScienceLink


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