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Mapping Wellcome funding in Africa

Who gets the UK medical research charity’s funding in Africa?

The Wellcome Trust is an established funder of medical research in Africa. The UK-based charity has long-running research programmes in Kenya and Malawi, which receive the lion’s share of the organisation’s funding in Africa.

But in recent years the Wellcome Trust has tried to make its funding more accessible to individuals and institutions outside its main African strongholds. This competition is helping to build up Africa’s medical research capacity and is boosting quality.

In this issue of Research Africa, we take stock of the countries winning Wellcome Trust funding in Africa. We investigate who gets the funding in two recent years: 2008/09 and 2009/10. Over these two years, the Trust spent a total of £84.6 million (US$135m) in Africa on a variety of activities ranging from regular research projects to training and science communication.

We also explore the Trust’s emerging funding strategy in a Q&A with its international affairs head and share tips and tricks about how to write a good proposal (see separate stories in this issue).

In compiling the data, we used the Trust’s own project database, handpicking the projects for Africa-based scientists or institutions and adding them to get the country totals. The data do not include indirect funding, which covers projects partly implemented in Africa by UK researchers.

The giants: Malawi and Kenya

Malawi and Kenya were the two biggest recipients of Wellcome Trust funding from 2008 to 2010 (see link to chart at the bottom).

Kenya received the largest share of all countries, with about £42 million over the two years. The lion’s share of this went to the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)-Wellcome Trust Research Programme that has top-quality labs in Nairobi and Kilifi on the coast.

Part of the Kenyan allocation was also used to finance senior research fellowships for UK scientists working on projects in the east African country.

Malawi followed suit with about £15 million in the two-year period. The Malawi-Liverpool Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Project, which focuses on biomedical research, got a large part of the funding. However, like in Kenya some of the funding was for UK researchers working on research projects in Malawi.

Jimmy Whitworth, the head of international activities at the Trust, said projects in Kenya and Malawi naturally win the most funding as researchers in these countries have a long history with the Trust and know how to submit good proposals.

“[They] are centres of excellence that we have funded for many years. Excellence creates excellence and so we tend to get large numbers of very good proposals from these centres,” he said.

The best of the rest

If Malawi and Kenya top the charts, no less than 15 other countries in Africa received funding from the charity.

In the two-year period, Tanzania was the third largest recipient of funding with a total of £8 million. One grant was administered by the country’s well-known Ifakara Health Institute, which has made a big mark on malaria research.

However, a large part of Tanzania’s money came from the Wellcome Trust’s African Institutions Initiative (AII), a capacity building grant round issued in 2008/09 for groups of African institutions. The Tanzanian AII award was shared out between Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Uganda and Ivory Coast, which also have institutions taking part in AII, followed suit with about £6m and £4.9m respectively over the two-year period. The Uganda Virus Research Institute and Makerere University were some of the lead institutions in Uganda, while Ivory Coast’s AII project had the country’s Swiss Centre of Scientific Research as the lead institution.

South Africa was another big recipient of Wellcome Trust funding with about £4m in total. Alongside Kenya and Malawi it is one of the leading African recipients of straight-up competitive research grants from the Trust, indicative of the quality of the country’s research base. Researchers from the University of Cape Town, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, the University of Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch University received fully-fledged project grants from the Trust.

Other lead recipients of Wellcome Trust funding from 2008 to 2010 included the Botswana, Cameroon and Zimbabwe. The Trust has helped Zimbabwe through some “very difficult times”, says Whitworth.

The distribution of funding in Africa totally depends on the quality of applications that the Trust receives, and varies from year to year. Grants are also issued for more than a year at a time, so the year-on-year distribution of funding is not necessarily constant.

Ultimately, says Whitworth, it’s all about quality. “Our main aim is to fund excellent science of a high quality. What we fund in any particular country or through particular funding schemes will vary from year to year depending on the quality of the proposals we receive.”