Developing talent for the African knowledge economy
This blog by Grace Mwaura, the Fellows and Affiliates Manager, as well as the mentoring coordinator for AESA’s Mentoring Scheme, emphasises the necessity of structured career mentoring in Africa.
The promise of a knowledge economy in Africa depends on building a critical mass of excellent science leaders who continually advance research and innovation while also equipping future generations of scientists. The continent is very far from this aspiration: according to the World Bank, there was just one PhD-level graduate for every 5,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017 (South Africa and Egypt were exceptions, with 21.5 and 14 doctorates per 5,000 people, respectively[i]). There is a drastic shortage of teachers, especially at tertiary institutions, to advance science and innovation. Ghana and Kenya require that all teaching faculty hold a PhD, an unrealistic threshold given the low numbers of PhD graduates in these countries. In fact, in 2017, of the 4,084 full-time teaching staff in Ghana public universities, only 149 of them held a PhD. A dearth of funding opportunities, low wages, poor research infrastructure, and a lack of incentives for those training outside Africa to return, all impede recruitment and retention of scientists. Moreover, female scientists are under-represented starting from the earliest educational level, resulting in few role models and mentors for females.
AESA’s promise to rising research leaders
For five years, Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Africa (AESA), hosted by the African Academy of Sciences, has been addressing these complex challenges through investment in building a critical mass of scientists and their research environments. AESA’s grant model is based on excellence in science and leadership, targeting individuals and institutions with the fewest existing opportunities for mentorship. This is a challenge because the best candidates tend to emerge from a small number of better-resourced institutions in terms of infrastructure, mentorship and supervision. Fewer and less-qualified candidates apply from countries in which universities struggle to attract and retain well-trained faculty, staff and research management systems.
AESA is working to close this gap through the implementation of a mentorship requirement for those receiving research grants. This is implemented by coupling postdoctoral research grant funding to mentorship expectations. These take the form of providing support and guidance to students and early career researchers (ECRs) to prepare them to thrive as science leaders in Africa. The intention is to both mitigate brain drain and to position emerging scientists to thrive in a transforming African science landscape, so that they form the necessary critical mass of excellent scientists who are also equipped to be mentors and role models themselves, to inspire and empower younger generations of scientists.
The initial two years of data reflect the effects of AESA-sponsored mentorship on cohorts of early and mid-career researchers from multiple grant programmes, including FLAIR, CR4D, APTI, H3A, AAS Affiliates and DELTAS Africa. Mentors are enrolled and matched with mentees based on pre-identified mentoring needs. As of January 2021:
This developmental approach to mentorship shifts control of the mentorship relationship to the mentee by guiding mentees to set achievable goals with the support of their mentors. The programme tracks mentorship relationships for a period of 24 months while offering regular training in the form of Masterclasses and other learning resources, and opportunities for feedback. Such feedback from mentorship relationships shows a high demand for general competencies required for a professional scientific career, such as leadership, communication, research management, grant writing and publishing. Notably, there is also a trend in both mentors and mentees asking for and receiving support for personal wellbeing and networking, particularly for grant applications and collaborative work.
Cost-benefit trade-offs of mentorship
AESA emphasized the use of virtual mentorship even before the onset of the COVID pandemic. This has ensured that mentees can be connected to their optimal mentors from across the world, and is cost-effective. It has also of course been vital since the onset of the pandemic. Costs are generally limited to initial programme design, curriculum development, staffing and subscriptions to an online mentoring platform, through which the mentoring relationships are managed. This platform also eases enrolment, matching, reporting, sharing of resources and the creation of communities of practice. By curating and adapting existing open-source mentorship resources, costs are limited and mentors and mentees can access a diversity of information and adapt it to their own needs.
AESA is currently seeking to develop a cost accounting structure for mentorship relationships in order to offer a model to ensure the ongoing sustainability of mentorship programmes so that they can be scaled up for the benefit of individuals and the African knowledge economy.
Most mentees seeking guidance have already endured significant career frustrations, including limited funding, poor infrastructure, increasing responsibilities and the absence of support from top leadership. This can extend to those already in a leadership position but who lack skills commensurate to their responsibilities. We believe that mentorship will provide these individuals with space for insightful reflections; an opportunity to question and adjust their pathways and glean the best advice of their mentors. Perhaps most important, we hope that participants are stimulated by others within the mentorship community to build their networks and skills. Mentorship goes beyond the nurturing of technical and professional competencies: it offers a safe thinking environment, particularly suited to the current pandemic environment. This benefit both mentor and mentees by developing emotional intelligence and skills in communication, negotiation and interpersonal and problem-solving. Indeed, in just two years, the mentorship experience is undergoing a multiplier effect, increasing the number of participants at all levels in order to facilitate continual learning and programme improvement to scale best practices.
[i] Source : Africa Renewal Magazine : https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2016-march-2017/diagnosing-africa%E2%80%99s-medical-brain-drain