African scientists and engineers look to Rise to help them shine

Pan-African science education initiative supports students in effort to boost postgraduate degrees and reverse brain drain MDG : Scientific research in Africa : Scientist at University of Cape Town, Rising to the challenge … Scientists at work in the University of Cape Town's drug discovery and development centre. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

When John Mwero looks at charred sugar cane ash, he sees sturdy bridges, soaring skyscrapers and stable roads. He is convinced that bagasse ash – the residue left after processors suck out the sugar and burn the cane – has the potential to make cement stronger and cheaper.

To test his hunch, Mwero is conducting research towards his PhD – and confronting multiple challenges. After two degrees at the University of Nairobi and several stints with consultants and contractors, he knew civil engineering was his niche.

But funds for doctoral students are limited, advisers are in short supply, and critical research equipment may be unavailable or broken. Many students take seven to 10 years to earn their degrees, which is a long time by the standards of African universities.

"If you need to do a test and there is no money, you have to go and work and get the money," he says. "You eat some of it and do other things with some, and save a bit for research, so it becomes an uphill task."

Luckily for him, Mwero's work caught the attention of the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (Rise), which supports promising science and engineering students pursuing advanced degrees in sub-Saharan Africa. Through gifted scholars such as Mwero, the programme hopes to boost higher education in engineering and science across the continent – mainly through a series of international networks that connect universities, students, civil society and industry.

Arlen Hastings is executive director of the Science Initiative Group, which launched Rise. "The rationale behind the programme," she says, "was that there are many pockets of excellence around Africa, but there aren't that many African universities, outside of South Africa, that have the capacity to provide comprehensive PhD programmes in science and engineering. However, if you take elements, pieces from each of a bunch, you can put together a pretty strong education."

For Mwero, the Rise network proved invaluable. "If I was to do an engineering PhD here, there would be a lot of challenges if I wasn't in a network like that," he says.

The programme has proved to be a boon on the other side of the continent, according to Joseph Omotoyinbo, a materials engineering professor at Nigeria's Federal University of Technology, which participates in the Rise network. "The difference I've seen," he says, "is that students have access to facilities with which they can really conduct their research."

But Rise is about more than access to materials. Its five subject-based networks – covering material and engineering science, natural products, biochemistry and informatics, water resources and the western Indian Ocean region – provide students with expertise from all over Africa.

"It's like a pool for all the universities that are in the network. If a student requires any service at any of those, it is possible to arrange to have that. And not just the use of equipment, but also the training," Mwero says.

Rise's PhD candidates are required to have at least two advisers. One must be from another university in the network. Mwero says his project benefited from four advisers, including a structural engineering professor from Nigeria and a mechanical engineering professor from Namibia.

"Everybody brings in their expertise. You have an issue and you have a lot of points of view, so it's properly digested," he says. "When it's addressed, it's very well addressed, and it improves the quality of work."

So far, Rise seems to be working – and growing. The Science Initiative Group at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in the US, first started accepting applications for Rise in 2007 under a $3.3m (£2.04m) grant from the Carnegie Corporation. By 2008, the initiative had selected its first three grantees from a pool of 48 proposals.

Four years later, Rise is supporting 63 master's and 67 PhD students through a $5m Carnegie grant, according to SciDev.Net.

But creating academics isn't the same as retaining them, so Rise also focuses on training grantees locally. Joseph Borode, a co-ordinator for Rise's material science and engineering network, says that before Rise the best option was often to send students abroad for training, but many never came home, meaning, he says, that the investment in their study abroad "had no return".

The shortage of qualified academics was compounded as older generations of instructors started retiring. "We need continuity," Borode says. "So there's a need to bring up younger people to take on board."

To reverse the "brain drain", Rise incentivises students to stay in their home countries by building supportive research communities, opening connections and paving the way to faculty positions, Hastings says.

For Borode, Rise has already made an impact. "We are in a position to say we are already becoming a stable department, a centre of excellence with people of knowledge who can now train personnel and put them in industry locally," he says. "If they had gone because of the brain drain, we would be denied that." His material sciences department now has 32 staff for about 500 students, he says.

For Mwero, staying east Africa was a given. He plans to remain in Kenya for family reasons and to lay the groundwork for his future. "I'm trying to set up an engineering practice here, so I need to keep meeting the people who will give me work. If I disappear for three or four years, then I'll become a total stranger," he says.

There's another practical twist to the Rise plan besides restocking Africa's universities with academic talent. The programme is committed to bringing ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace. Rise focuses on localised problems that resonate with researchers, such as developing a herbal cure for malaria, according to Hastings. "There are people who are working on problems they care deeply about that affect their home countries or regions," she says.

And, Omotoyinbo says, the combined results could prove key to the continent's development. "The problems we are trying to solve are African problems. So once they are solved, then that is development for Africa," he says.

With additional reporting by Kylé Pienaar and Samantha Nkirote McKenzie