Students at the National University of Lesotho. (Photo/ Flickr/ K. Kendall)

Africa’s Scientific Research Output: Where ‘Small’ Countries Punch Above Their Weight

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LAST month, lecturers at Uganda’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning, Makerere University, threatened to lay down their tools over the university’s decision to slash their pay incentive to teach evening classes.

The 94-year-old institution is the only African university outside of South Africa to make it to the top five in the recently released Times Higher Education rankings, and critics have long wondered how it manages to pull off such a feat despite its unending woes with staff and students.

An editorial in one of the country’s leading dailies decried the lost productivity in incessant strikes by public universities and suggested that this threatened the country’s “march towards a middle-income economy”.

Well, it turns out in Africa, countries that have a relatively sound higher education system have not necessarily attained middle-income status. And those whose economies are doing well do not always have the best universities (if we take research output as the primary indicator). It’s a jumbled mix.

Whereas economic growth in Africa over the last two decades is undisputed, progress towards a future shaped by the knowledge economy has been at a much slower pace.

According to Scimago Journal and Country Rank, a portal that generates the journal and country scientific indicator rankings from Elsevier’s Scopus® database, the continent as a whole last year produced 1.85% of total global scientific output.


Whereas global scientific output has grown from one million documents in 1996 to three million in 2015, Africa’s contribution to global scientific output has only grown by just under one percentage point, from 0.96% in 1996.

Africa’s 55,577 publications are slightly more than a single European country, the Netherlands at 51,434.

Western Europe and Asia are the leading continents in publications, with North America following in a close third place.

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In Africa, South Africa leads the pack with over 17,000 documents published in 2015, followed by Tunisia and Algeria. Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, came in a distant fourth but managed to muscle its way back to second place (behind South Africa) when we compared output between 1996 and last year.

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Most of Africa’s scientific output is in the health sciences, which account for 45% of the continent’s output and the natural sciences like biology, fisheries and forestry.

In East Africa, publications in health sciences were above the world average. It’s possibly a legacy of the high disease burden that the region grapples with, including HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, research that donors are happy to fund.

On the other hand, West and North Africa have a higher publication rate of research in pure and applied mathematics, particularly Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.


Conspicuously missing from the top 10 list are Africa’s richer countries, Angola, Sudan and Libya (Egypt is ranked with the Middle East). Angola, Africa’s fifth biggest economy, came in at number 36 with a mere 83 publications last year.

Malawi, whose GDP is 1/18th of Angola’s, ranked number 15 with 519 documents published in 2015. The country has the continent’s lowest enrollment rate in higher education – only 1% of Malawians are enrolled at university – but this didn’t seem to have deterred the Southern African nation.

It seems that the presence of “easy” money in an economy, such as that created by natural resource rents, dampens the incentive to slog it out in the research lab.

But without oil, gold or diamonds, there is more reason to turn to the knowledge economy.

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