A roadmap to revitalise research and innovation in Zimbabwe
With the impending efforts to rapidly rebuild Zimbabwe through economic, technological and social transformation, a revitalised and strategic research and innovation thrust is required.
This revitalisation should be buttressed by a regenerated and sustainable science culture and supported by regulatory structures imbued with the imperative to innovate.
We, the authors of this article—Zimbabwean researchers in Zimbabwe, South Africa and UK, all members of the NIHR Tackling Infections to Benefit Africa partnership at the University of Edinburgh—suggest the following roadmap for this transformation.
Implementing these suggestions will not be easy but will be critical for a revitalised research and innovation sector in the country and ultimately for economic and social transformation in Zimbabwe.
Revive the culture and status of research and innovation
Zimbabwean scientists, policy makers, implementers, end-users and research institutions should define the country’s research agenda and strategic priorities. These priorities should promote evidence-based policymaking informed by relevant regional and continental strategies. Key actors for this include the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences, the Medical Research Council of Zimbabwe and the Research Council of Zimbabwe.
Research excellence and innovation should be publicly funded, and celebrated by expanding existing reward structures. Through an annual awards ceremony, the Research Council of Zimbabwe already recognises science and innovation leading to entrepreneurship, job creation, poverty elimination and economic transformation. Extending these awards to all career levels will inculcate the culture of research and innovation at early stages. The impact of the awards can be amplified through grand challenge funds from the public and private sectors to prime and shape the trajectory of industry, economic growth and wellbeing. In addition, national competitions and lucrative scholarships in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at secondary and tertiary levels will attract the brightest students to these fields.
The resuscitation of science and research journals such as Zimbabwe Science News, and the adoption of online platforms, will allow research and innovation ideas and culture to be disseminated more widely.
The provision of competitive remuneration packages for researchers will reinstate research and innovation as competitive career pathways in Zimbabwe. For health-related research, restructuring clinical training to involve research training and exposure will produce clinical staff equipped to conduct clinical research for biomedical innovation. This will move the countries’ clinicians from consumers of health products to innovators and drivers of research at the frontline of the health system.
Creating an enabling environment for research and innovation
There is a huge well-trained and well-networked human resource currently residing outside Zimbabwe willing to participate in research activities and education in the country. A number of these would like to return home.
The Zimbabwean government needs to reclaim this human resource and have a plan for smooth re-integration. This requires sensitive navigation to ensure the integration of incoming researchers and innovators, while adequately recognising those who remained in the country during difficult times.
There is a need to tap into Zimbabwe’s diaspora expertise, such as the Zimbabwean researchers and innovators advising the World Health Organization, the Southern African Development Community, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and others, who are currently not directly contributing to Zimbabwe’s strategy and policy development or implementation. Establishing a national register of Zimbabwean experts willing to contribute to the country’s science agenda will enable Zimbabwe to tap into this expertise.
Simplifying research exchange regulations as well as processes for appointing visiting or honorary researchers will attract collaborators to Zimbabwe, thereby enhancing research, innovation and teaching. An audit of issues obstructing growth in international collaborations should be undertaken and addressed through already existing institutions including the Medical Research Council of Zimbabwe and the Research Council of Zimbabwe.
There is a need for an improved working environment encompassing qualified support personnel, infrastructure and facilities and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.
Support in the form of training, financial resources for protecting intellectual property and simplified regulations are needed to encourage innovation and investment in local manufacture of local laboratory consumables, reagents and equipment.
Sustainable funding for research and innovation
Sustainability will come from investment within the country from government, private sector and philanthropic organisations. Zimbabwe is signatory to the Algiers Declaration of 2008, which requires that government allocates at least 2 per cent of national health expenditure and at least 5 per cent of external aid for health projects and health research. Structures to administer this already exist in Zimbabwe; the Medical Research Council of Zimbabwe and the Research Council of Zimbabwe can draw from successful models in other African countries, particularly the South African Medical Research Council and South Africa’s National Research Foundation.
There is need for strategic and financial investment in the resuscitation and development of the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry in Zimbabwe to produce drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and medical devices. Support from international stakeholders and funders like the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership will build on local investment and talent.
Zimbabwe’s new government could use bilateral relationships to provide seed funding for the formation of partnerships between existing local and international pharmaceutical companies to regenerate the country’s pharmaceutical and biotech industries. For example, the South African Medical Research Council has several such agreements with the UK, allowing South African academics and innovators to work with British companies towards creating medical solutions. The bilateral matching of contributions between Zimbabwe and partner countries would ensure local buy-in, ownership and sustainability.
Zimbabwean institutions and local stakeholders, including the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences and academic institutions, should actively engage with local and international philanthropists to fund training, research and innovation to ensure sustainability.
This article was prepared by Prof Francisca Mutapi, Deputy Director, TIBA, University of Edinburgh with contributions from Dr Geoffrey Banda, Global Food Security and Innovation, University of Edinburgh; Prof Moses Chimbari, deputy director TIBA, University of Kwazulu Natal, South Africa; Prof Collen Masimirembwa, biochemical pharmacologist, Zimbabwe; Prof Takafira Mduluza, immunologist, University of Zimbabwe; Dr Paul Ndebele, director, Medical Research Council of Zimbabwe; Prof Simbarashe Rusakaniko, Community Medicine, University of Zimbabwe; Prof Elopy Sibanda, clinician, Zimbabwe