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China-Africa science collaboration booming but uneven

Research collaboration between China and Africa is growing exponentially but only a few countries are participating in the growth, a research paper has found.

The paper by Mammo Muchie and Swapan Kumar Patra, both from Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa, examined publishing trends in collaborations between Chinese and African researchers from 1975 to 2017.

Research co-authored by Chinese and African scientists grew significantly over the period, especially over the last decade. More than 80 per cent of the 15,000 papers published since 1975 appeared between 2011 and 2017. This was five-and-a-half times more than the total for 2001 to 2010. 

But this growth was driven by a small number of scientifically prominent African countries. “The overall growth of scientific publications is attributed only to a few countries for example South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and a few other emerging economies,” Muchie and Patra write in the Journal of Chinese Economic and Business Studies on 1 August.

This imbalance, they write, is indicative of the science strength of certain parts of the continent. While the data does not track broader investment trends the authors said that many countries which host large Chinese-backed infrastructure projects saw hardly any research collaborations.

“China has collaboration with only those African countries which are comparatively better in terms of science and technology. So, it can be said that countries with good science and technology infrastructure are also good in collaboration,” the authors say. They write that countries stronger in science, such as South Africa, could serve as role models for the continent. 

Chinese collaboration with Africa grew steadily from 2000 and has boomed since 2010. Djibouti was the only African country not to publish a joint article with China.

South Africa, the top collaborator in Africa, co-authored 4,700 papers with China in total since 1975. The number of papers with authors from South Africa and China more than quadrupled from 2001-2010 to 2011-2017—a growth rate matched by Nigeria.

Egypt’s number of co-authored papers with China rose even faster, growing more than six-fold between 2001-2010 and 2011-2017. But East African countries had the most dramatic increases: Rwanda went from one co-authored paper in 2001-2011 to 102 in 2011-2017. And Ethiopia saw collaborations rise from 15 to 250 over the same period.

Joint patents between Africa and China did not follow the same trajectory. Patents increased steadily until 2011, but then declined sharply. Muchie and Patra say the reason for this is unclear. Egypt holds the most joint patents with China, followed by South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.