African Scholars must be connected to the data we need

John Mugo, Executive Director of Zizi Afrique in Kenya, and Purity Ngina, Kenya’s youngest Ph.D. holder in Biomathematics & Research Manager at Zizi Afrique, co-write this blog sharing challenges African scholars face accessing the data they need to make a difference.

This blog is the first in our 'Data for Education' series.

A lecturer at a university in Accra, Ghana

It is thought that the extended closure of education institutions following COVID-19 could worsen inequity in many ways. Scholars on the continent can use this moment to provide solutions through analysis of the situation and publication. However, the research output of African scholars has been the lowest in the world.

Connecting African scholars to quality data may help accelerate research output in Sub-Saharan Africa, and improve education and learning on the continent.

Though Africa is home to 17% of the world’s population, less than 1% of the global research output originates from Africa.

Some authors relate this to the poor ranking of African Universities. In the Ranking Web of Universities (2020), only 4 of the African Universities are ranked among the top 500 universities globally. All the 4 are from South Africa. The top ranked University of Cape Town is ranked 276th globally.

Challenges faced by scholars in Africa

Looking at what is written about this, the perspectives of African scholars are poorly represented. First, poorly matched by resources, the expansion of the university in the last decade has yielded an extremely poor lecturer to student ratio.

In most social science classes, it is common to find one lecturer in front of 1,000 students. The teaching workload, exacerbated by marking of scripts in an examination, rather than knowledge driven education system, is one untold scholarly nightmare.

Related to this, the low ratio of Ph.D. holders to graduate students has yielded very poor supervisor ratios. One scholar lamented:

"At one time in my early years of scholarly life I was supervising 11 PhDs and 24 Masters students."

At the same time, the relatively low salary of university scholars, against the expectations of being the most educated in society, yields pressure. Scholars are often trapped in part-time teaching of commercial courses (referred to as moonlighting in Kenya) or leading a life of consultancies.

Access to research funding is poor, as most universities have sunk their capital into the development of infrastructure to accommodate the swelling student populations.

Combined, these circumstances present the worst recipe for research output.

Not all is gloomy, and COVID-19 offers MOMENTUM to act

In 2018, documentation by Duermeijer and others established that in Africa, scientific production grew by 39 % between 2012 and 2016, the fastest in the world. However, much of what is published is in the health sector and other areas of the economy. Despite the fact that most scholars are in education (within universities), publications in education are relatively low.

The education closure following COVID-19 offers a moment of reflection on how we, African scholars, could change the landscape.

Though teaching is moving online for most universities, the burden of moving to class and marking physical scripts is less. Many research consultancies have dried up now, and a dip in field research opportunities is expected in the period of recovery that follows.

This period, and the next months, present a grand opportunity for scholars to pick up analysis and writing. This may be the best time for African scholars to pick up the broken pieces, and demonstrate their resilience.

Connecting scholars to data and tools is possible

Many solutions to the improvement of scientific output have been sought, including facilitating greater access to data and analytical tools, increasing funding, and restoring a balance between teaching and research workloads.

Despite the low scientific output, the amount of data generated on Africa’s soil is immense. Most of these, however, sit idle on closed datasets and in unpublished research reports, gathering ‘dust’ in the hard disks and flash disks of scholars and programme officers.

While collecting good data is expensive, many organizations and funders have invested heavily to collect data on various development issues. Most of these datasets are hardly scratched to generate knowledge.

How could we inspire COLLABORATION between data generators and owners, and scholars in Africa?

First, a call is made to African organizations and funding partners to make their data available, but also contribute modest resources to facilitate analysis and publication. Making data available is a powerful imperative to our commitment to Africa’s development.

On the other hand, senior scholars can work with junior scholars and graduate students to land on the data, mine knowledge, publish, tell our stories and help improve learning and development for Africa.

Investing in rapid cleaning, anonymization and publishing of data can be possible, as Africa is not low on statisticians. At the same time, creating fellowships is necessary to incentivize analysis, publication and presentation in conferences to share this knowledge.

Now we will wait to see who reads this, and who wants to achieve this goal with us. 


 We are building a list of open access education data sets. Here are some of the education data sets that are available by the Zizi Afrique Foundation, info@ziziafrique.org

  • A national study on youth and skills among youth not in education, employment or training in Kenya (2019).

  • A study of youth supply and demand among entry level youth employees and employers in various sectors in Kenya (2019).

  • A study on youth and skills among youth not in education, employment or training in Kenya (2019). 

If you would like to add to this list, or contribute an idea to our blog series 'Doing more with Data' please email comms@essa-africa.org.