Remedying African research institutions’ challenges to knowledge production: some reflections and proposals

by Abdikadir Bare Abikar, Ed Burnett, Emmanuel Hanyabui, Shuaib Jalal-Eddeen, and Kamugisha Allan Kabahweza (the second cohort of BIEA graduate attachés for the 2020-2021 academic year)

The growing relevance of knowledge creation and “human capital” in contemporary development cannot be overemphasized. African centres of learning have a crucial role in the continent’s future success. Yet, compared with their counterparts elsewhere, African institutions tend to lag. This blog post presents a few of our thoughts on two issues. First, some of the challenges faced by African institutions in the context of knowledge creation and human capital development. And second, suggestions on how African institutions can be better positioned to improve their capacities, for the betterment of the continent.

One challenge African universities face in knowledge production is a lack of confidence. Lecturers are often not convinced of their own knowledge, since African education systems have frequently been centred on “question and answer” systems. These systems, originating in colonial education schemes, have led many African countries to focus purely on teaching rote facts. Similarly, many students are in school purely because their parents have told them to acquire white-collar jobs, and do not want to think beyond passing exams.

Indeed, most African universities themselves exist primarily for profit. Thus, they arguably cannot be considered “research universities” at all. So questions remain about: Who should think of what the continent needs? What kind of people should African countries produce to better themselves, rather than for mere extraction of natural resources?  Through Western nations’ involvement, universities tend to be built for business rather than shaping future generations.


Because neither universities nor societal guardians are motivated to let students think creatively, knowledge production is greatly dampened. Many educational institutions in Africa correspondingly lack education in critical thinking. Yet, critical thinking is key for encouraging creativity and the production of new knowledge rather than mere recital. In Uganda, for instance, there have been numerous calls to focus the curriculum towards producing job creators rather than job seekers.

Likewise, even where critical thinking is taught, education systems are often purely theoretical rather than practically based: academic institutions in Africa produce graduates in large numbers every year with no practical and ICT skills to solve development-related problems. Inadequate qualified personnel in institutions, lack of ICT facilities or infrastructure, and unavailability of networking are all among the serious challenges hindering African graduates’ training. The ultimate consequence is that talented young graduates cannot develop their potential without practical or critical thinking skills.

Moreover, any beneficial schemes attempting to change African research institutions frequently originate from former colonial nations, maintaining a stronger voice over methods of study and so on. This greatly affects Africa’s reliance in knowledge production. However, merely replicating these preexisting teaching programs is a flawed concept. It reduces researchers’ creativity. In contrast, each institution needs its own research structure, one that could consider the most immediate and important demands and needs in the country or region that it resides.

External influence can sometimes be damaging, as can be seen attempts aimed at examining the state of academic archaeology and heritage within Africa. Dr Sada Mire’s recent article in the Guardian outlines this situation particularly well. Mire notes that cultural heritage is an essential part of human existence, yet its production and maintenance so often fall within external, Western institutions. There have been improvements with, for instance, several editors of related journals now based on the continent. However, outside voices still dominate the study of Africa’s past. The same is the case with archaeology as a whole. Voices tend to predominantly be white, straight, and male. Aside from this situation’s base injustice, this creates issues of inaccurate recording. As Mire discusses, researchers from diverse backgrounds ask diverse questions, and those who have been brought up among the culture whose past is being studied are more likely to ask insightful ones.

Because of these and countless other challenges, many African research institutions face comparatively poor educational outcomes and research output – and, perhaps even more importantly, those instances of truly excellent teaching and research are often sidelined or outright ignored. In short: something needs to change.

So, what can be done to remedy this situation? The most straightforward change would be in institutions’ fundamental objectives and curricula, as outlined above. But this would naturally be extremely difficult, considering how deep-seated these problems are. A more specific way to improve African institutions’ research capacity, contrastingly, is through endowments. Endowments are financial assets donated to academic institutions to support their teaching, research, and public service missions. This could free up researchers’ resources, allowing them to study those areas they deem important and interesting for wider society—not just those that promise more money. Key performance indicators (KPIs)—for instance, publishing in an international journal or engaging a minimum number of PhD students—could be used as a baseline for accessing this privilege. Apart from the clear benefit to the recipients, endowments can improve the sponsoring firm’s reputation, too.

When considering the aforementioned issues with external funding bodies and researchers holding sway over African research institutions, simply raising awareness about the extent of this problem provides one means of fighting back, where more tangible actions are impossible. All researchers working in Africa must discuss these injustices and work towards ending the treatment of Africa as a source of knowledge rather than an equal part in creating it. The Society of Black Archaeologists (while US-based) is one excellent organization providing this sort of essential work, among many others.

Finally, technology provides one key means that African research institutions could focus on the more practical, creative aspects of education. However, this must not be simplistic, but should incorporate more complex technological tools and other smart devices. An education system that only prides itself on students’ ability to surf the internet and use technological gadgets at ease is not enough. Instead, we need education and training systems that produce graduates who can better invent technology, from agriculture and fishery machinery to computers and robotics. Research institutions within Africa need to grow and develop. Such objectives should hopefully help make this happen.

Abdikadir Bare Abikar is a passionate educator with 8.5 years of experience in multicultural classrooms at the primary, secondary, and university levels in Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya; indeed, UNHCR has recognised his accomplishments as an example of what education makes possible for displaced learners. He has a Masters in education and a Bachelor of liberal arts and provisional studies majoring in geography from York University, Canada.

Ed Burnett’s main academic interests lie in the archaeology of East Africa, particularly regarding geospatial analysis. Over the last year he has completed an MSc in Digital Archaeology at the University of York, in the UK, and previously carried out a BA in Archaeology & Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

Emmanuel Hanyabui has recently finished his MPhil degree in Land Use and Environmental Science at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, after having successfully completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture at the same institution. His research interest borders on soil plant nutrition dynamics.

Shuaib Jalal-Eddeen’s research at the BIEA focuses on the everyday impact of financial technology in Nigeria. He has a BSc and MSc from the American University of Nigeria and University College London respectively.

Kamugisha Allan Kabahweza has just finished a BA in Journalism and Communication, and is now undertaking a Masters in the same subject. He is interested in Social Media Analysis, particularly in his home country of Uganda.

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