/ 17 January 2023

It’s time to take African researchers seriously

Romania Education School Feature
Roma children make their homeworks after the class on March 20, 2018 at a school in the Romanian village of Boldesti-Scaieni. (Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP)

In the quest for the data and evidence needed to solve Africa’s most complex education problems, one group is routinely left out — the African researchers themselves. 

Not only would including them constitute an important step towards justice and equity, rooting education research in local realities is the pathway towards more effective policies and programmatic outcomes. 

In Kenya, the Covid-19 pandemic made this abundantly clear. By mid-2021, almost 17 million Kenyans were out of school. The ministry of education opted for digital learning through online classes, television and radio programmes, planning to fully continue learning online during the pandemic. 

Usawa Agenda (Usawa), a local education research organisation, took the initiative to understand the effectiveness of this approach. Usawa Agenda rapidly mobilised its broad network of local researchers and launched a national survey targeting nearly all of Kenya’s 47 counties to better understand the needs and problems of the pupils, especially those living in marginalised contexts. 

The problems raised by this evidence included suboptimal digital infrastructure, lack of access to digital learning, lack of preparedness by the teachers and disillusionment from parents.

In the face of such deep and community-based analysis that remote learning would, against its own intention, widen learning inequities and disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable children and youth, the government revamped the rollout of the programme. Soon thereafter, the government opted instead to close schools completely until all pupils could safely return to in-person learning.

Several factors contributed to Usawa’s success: proximity to the local context, thoughtful and thorough engagement with local stakeholders including the government, and working directly with people to name a few. 

But perhaps the most critical reason is that Usawa is a local research organisation, based in and led by local leaders who hold the familiarity, trust and legitimacy of the local people and the broader education ecosystem. 

Stories like this, unfortunately, are few and far between. In 2016, research produced in Africa accounted for just 3% of global research output. The scarcity of African research is at least partially because of a lack of funding. More than 80% of locally-led education research in Africa is considered underfunded, a far higher figure than in the Global North.

Funders are in a unique position to change who gets funding for research. In recent years, we have witnessed philanthropic funding playing an important role in the local education research ecosystem. Donors often issue funding in verticals, earmarked for specific short-term projects and through a variety of intermediaries. 

Donors also rarely work together in a coordinated manner, perhaps because their strategic and operational priorities differ. In many contexts, several of these factors operate simultaneously. For the local education researcher, this all represents a precarious and convoluted path to mobilise the resources needed to conduct research.

Yet for Africa, the need for home-grown, evidence-informed education programmes has never been more pressing. Earlier this year, with Echidna Giving, the Gates Foundation and Porticus, we hosted the Forum for Education Research in/for/by Africa, bringing together researchers, educators, professors, advocates and others in the education world to rethink the way international funding could be more intentional in supporting African-led research

It was agreed that donor funding can do more to be more supportive of African-led and produced research, as it will enable African education researchers to forge their own pathway to African development and contribute to the wealth of global research. 

While the immediate need is funding, attendees identified a broad and holistic universe of support components ranging from communications, technical capacity, partnerships, mentorship and regional collaboration. 

Even more importantly, they highlighted that African researchers must also have access and rights to use the data they collect, allowing them the ownership and autonomy needed for them to apply in their own contexts. 

Ideas abound, but more initiatives — fuelled by a shared vision and an audacious commitment to equity — are needed. With local research talent so well-placed to help improve African education, we need to level the playing field. African researchers are eager to tackle the problems their communities are facing. It’s high time we gave them a chance to do so. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.