Local Innovation Advances Health in Africa
Professor Kelly Chibale at the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Access to universal healthcare remains a global challenge and even more pressing in the African region. While African-based researchers, scientists and innovators have the capability to make significant contributions towards building homegrown solutions, the continent lacks adequate financial investment in innovative pharmaceutical research and development (R&D).

To achieve the African Union’s Agenda 2063 for a bold transformation of the continent, we need to take action now.  

Coming off the heels of the recent  African Innovation for Inclusive Healthcare webinar hosted by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) and the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Foundation, it is important to continue exploring how the African science and innovation community can be scaled up to capacitate the continent’s R&D to play a more effective role in responding to local health challenges. 

The webinar illustrated the successful drug development partnerships across the industry, government and academics in South Africa. 

Homegrown solutions should be at the heart of this ecosystem we want to build. We know that the continent’s public healthcare system and health innovation ecosystem face numerous challenges including limited access to medicines, competitive technologies, shortage of a critical mass of skilled personnel and inadequate funding. 


In 2006, African Union member states committed to spending 1% of their GDP on R&D. However, this is still not the case. African countries still vastly underfund their R&D efforts. According to a report from UNESCO, no country in Africa is spending 1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D, although spending on science has increased globally in the past five years. The report also highlights that while Africa has 16% of the world’s population, it only has 1.3% of the world’s researchers.

We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we have made some inroads. We’ve found that the best way to curb these problems is to build collaborations and strengthen existing capabilities. 

The Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre, which I lead, provides avenues for research institutions to collaborate and work together to leverage our different capabilities and mobilise funding together. The past five years have taught us that we can transform and strengthen the capacity of historically disadvantaged institutions in South Africa and effectively expand the drug discovery community across the continent through partnerships and industry – and academic-led mentorship. 

At our webinar, I was pleased to hear Elizabeth V Mumbi Kigondu, Principal Research Scientist, Centre for Traditional Medicine and Drug Research at Kenya’s Medical Research Institute, say that this “will allow us to ensure that we have medicines and products coming from Africans and solve African health problems.”

Building on these partnership models, we recently partnered with the University of Limpopo and the University of Venda on tuberculosis (TB) research initiative to boost local TB research while also accelerating capacity development at these historically disadvantaged institutions.

Training scientists is one of the key tasks of H3D.

With these projects, H3D continues to address the challenges in capacity building by training local scientists – creating a steady stream of skilled scientists to generate African-led scientific knowledge while simultaneously closing the gaps in the local science and research sectors.  While building facilities is important, it is equally important to cultivate a skilled workforce to utilise these resources effectively.

The key to driving health innovation in Africa is in strengthening human resources through science mentorship. As a J&J Satellite Centre for Global Health Discovery, H3D has partnered with the company to harness the best scientific talent in Africa and to mentor them in boosting H3D’s antimicrobial resistance (AMR) drug discovery portfolio, which will eventually attract more projects and investments. These mentorship programmes foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that encourages the development of new technologies, products and services.

Having highlighted the importance of partnerships and collaborations in African R&D innovation, it is equally crucial to discuss the role of financial investment in this sector as it provides access to resources that drive R&D, technology transfer and entrepreneurship. 

Manufacturing active pharmaceutical ingredients

H3D has recently been granted funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to boost medicines manufacturing in Sub-Saharan Africa. The fund through MATRIX will support a pilot project that will evaluate innovative technology for the cost-effective manufacturing of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) in South Africa.

While the South African pharmaceutical formulation industry is well developed and produces more than half the final pharmaceutical product consumed locally, the country does not have the capacity to synthesise and manufacture APIs. 

To address this challenge, H3D has partnered with an international group of scientists and a local API manufacturing company, Chemical Process Technologies (CPT) Pharma, to develop a creative approach that, if successful, could revolutionise the manufacturing of medicines in South Africa, and the rest of the continent.

This collaboration will facilitate both technology transfer and on-the-job skills development and forms a crucial role in seeding new industrial development that is so critical for absorbing the abundant labour force available in South Africa.

While there is no silver bullet, these are perhaps valuable lessons for the types of health innovations that the continent can produce when vested interests are aligned towards the same goals, particularly considering Africa’s longstanding manufacturing scarcity and the urgent need to scale up R&D efforts.

With continued funding and support for African science, research, and development innovation, Africa’s capacity for R&D and innovation will increase and this will drive progress in achieving quality healthcare for all.

Professor Kelly Chibale is the founder and Director of the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


Image Credits: Kerry Cullinan.

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