Kenya: The troubles of a science PhD from the West

Graduate students of the London School of Economics and Political Science gathered at Kenya’s coast in September 2018, where the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Dr Mukhisa Kituyi told them: “With your international credibility, it is easier and tempting to leave and take out of the continent the little intellectual resource that could solve problems their countries face.”

He was persuading them to come back home, to Africa, to ‘save the modern state from collapse’. Many PhD holders with African descent have taken Dr Kituyi’s message to heart, and returned to Africa, but according to interviews with fourteen returnees in biomedical sciences for this article, they have had a hard time adjusting to life at home.

The common theme from the returnees was the lack of funding for their work and inadequately equipped labs. When they managed to resolve the two, they had bureaucracy that is ingrained in the DNA of the institutions and the people they are expected to work with.

The World Bank estimates that unemployment for people with advanced education in Africa is as high a 20 per cent in some countries, and this is what returnees face when they land. Additionally, their return back home is compounded by other structural challenges such as bureaucracy, all these in context of a continent that have few researchers.

Kenyan Martin Rono, a PhD in cell and molecular biology from a joint Germany-France programme, anticipated a few challenges when he took his flight back home, where his knowledge about malaria – one of the country’s biggest public health problem — would be needed. That could not be further from the truth, first with the assumption that his return was a noble idea that would be praised.

Transferring the responsibility for development from the state to the individual

But this is planted in the graduate’s mind right from the start. In Kenya, like many other, Kenya’s colonial relationships sustain scholarships such as the Commonwealth Scholarships offered to former colonies of England, which often have a condition that the recipient of the scholarships need to return home after their studies to develop their countries.  This assumption is rooted on neoliberalism, which transfers development from the responsibility of the state to individuals.

When returnees leave for their studies abroad, there is an overt expectation communicated to them through funding they receive to pursue their studies. For instance, the Commonwealth PhD scholarships for low and middle income countries limit applicants to six themes. Speaking at the launch of Kenya’s National Science and Research Strategy, Tom Ogada – the Chairman of the Kenyan National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) – said that the problems in the continent have forced scientists to ask themselves very hard questions and “they cannot follow their passion, but solutions to their citizens’ issues”.

This leaves returnees in a pickle, but this is not a new thing in the north-south relations. Just like migrants send money back home, returnees are expected to return with ideas and innovation as well as a link between Africa and the influential and richer host institutions in the west.

In their 2013 paper Introduction: Agents of Change? Staging and Governing Diasporas and the African State[1], Simon Turner and Nauja Kleist argue that returnees are perceived to assume a double identity as being westernized in their thinking, but still African. This should be the perfect mix for them to act as “brokers” between the west and Africa.

This is where the antagonism when they come home originates. To the locals, the returnees come back to try applying what they learnt from the well-resourced western universities, much to the consternation of their local counterparts who interpret it as a communication of their inferiority and lack of civilization. This, Lisa Åkesson and Maria Eriksson Baaz[2] state, may lead to exposure, exclusion and, sometimes, even outright harassment and belittling.

The unpredicted challenges of hierarchy and bureaucracy

A returnee who researches HIV – who requested be anonymous – needed a lab, at Kenya’s oldest and most respected tertiary institution, the University of Nairobi. It took three months to gain access to the lab due to entrenched bureaucracies intermingled with politics and the pecking order in science.

“There is a hierarchy of a system, where you are told to ‘follow the channels, your time will come’ and that kind of talk, so I sat there waiting, and not even free to give ideas, lest I be seen as pretending to know more than my superiors” she waited.

Then the university told her there was no position in the organizational structure as a postdoc.

She lamented: “They said the Human Resource system only recognized lecturers who also researches, not an independent researcher who is working towards mastery of a specialized [field] without the responsibilities of teaching”

For three months, she wrote letters, attended meetings as guilt clawed at her soul for being paid by her Canadian funder that would support her work and have no work to show for it. It took a call from the funders, abroad, to allow her access to the lab.

Another returnee said he got into disciplinary issues for asking that two of his colleagues maintain correspondence in institutional emails whenever they were communicating with research collaborators. He was shooed down by “we have signed bigger deals in these personal Yahoo and Gmail emails that you are now belittling”.

In this case, as Prof Laura Hammond had studied about returnees in Somalia[3], the returnee was sometimes seen as the priviledged job stealer who took fewer years to get positions than the local-educated who took more than a decade to be promoted or professionally recognized.

Then there were those that were not lucky to get a position at all, and settled for some in areas they were not skilled in.

When Dr. Rono came back to Kenya in 2008, there were no jobs in his area of expertise— genomics in Malaria— and he accepted a position as a researcher in HIV.

“It was a short detour but also it was the job that was available at that time,” he said.

Dr Rono’s research is attempting to modify the makeup of mosquitoes in an effort to make them capable of spreading Malaria, a disease that kills at least 700 children under five in Africa, daily, and is responsible for more than a quarter of all children deaths.

The labs that are equipped to conduct this kind of research are few. Rono, now based at UK’s Wellcome Trust funded centre in Kenya’s coast, has little complaints about where he works but that has not protected him against bureaucracy in getting reagents. For the four years in France and Germany, Rono says he would order reagents for manipulating the DNA, and he would get them in hours or days because “the manufacturers were just around the corner”

When he came to Kenya, he had to import the reagents, and this would take days, further dampening his spirit.

He said: “The cost, the process of having the reagents cleared from customs can take months”.

Lack of PhDs in Africa

The frustration of returning to Africa with a PhD in sciences has persuaded many of the PhDs to remain in the western countries especially, when the challenges are also compounded by poor governance that in turn may affect the science handled in the countries.

Many PhDs have migrated, depleting an already not-so critical mass of PhDs, who is able to research and tutor in Africa, and with negative consequences on knowledge production: Africa only produces 1 per cent of the world’s research and mostly from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.

Tom Kariuki, PhD and Director of the pan African funding platform; Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) from the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), says that it does not help much that African governments are allocating very little money not only on the people who have had a PhD, but the entire process of getting a PhD: little monies from the national exchequer to the education of science from primary school to institutions of higher learning; little money to facilitate research; no state funding for well-equipped labs; poor pay for the PhDs.

“Most governments have a short-term goal, while even getting the PhD and creating an environment where the PhD can practice is a long-term investment,” he said.

The continent currently has 198 researchers per million people, a paltry ratio compared to as many as over 4,000 in the UK and US. Africa needs a million new PhDs to achieve the world average for the number of researchers per capita.

In an interview about unrelated matter, Faith Osier who is a Kenyan globally acclaimed malaria researcher, now based in Germany, said that she has found herself more useful to the partner lab in Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) while away. Dr Osier has been able to recruit PhDs to work alongside her as she mentors them.

She said: “While we can appreciate that African governments are trying to invest more money, but is it enough to conduct quality research, train, mentor, and for the scientist to lead a quality life or even take their children to school?”

There is no data to monitor the movement of PhDs out of the continent, but some literature has estimated the data as between 20,000 to 25,000 a year.

PhDs, like Osier, defy the neoliberal approach through which returnees are viewed: While the returnee may be part of a peoplehood — bound by some elements to their countries such as exercises of a democratic processes like voting or tribe — their movement in and out of their countries of origin are mostly personal, not some act of nationalism: they want proper pay, and other career advancing opportunities.

Institutions like the AAS and collaborations with funders have founded mentorships and programs such as Future Leaders African Independent Research (FLAIR) that grants about 150,000 GBP every year for a period of two years for returnees to conduct their own research.

Aside from the financial support, the programmes pair the young scientist with more experienced researchers who act as mentors.

Periodically, the cohorts meet physically where they are given courses to refresh on critical skills that would enable them to work efficiently in the developing world. These include writing grant proposals, managing the teams they hire for their research, community and public engagement.

Institutions such as Next Einstein Forum and Mawazo Institute offer support to PhDs and are going an extra mile to have initiatives that focus on women.

Dr Kariuki said he was surprised at the many post-doctoral applicants who applied for FLAIR and many other opportunities from the 11 consortiums he oversees.

“I was so surprised that they were all willing to come home,” Dr Kariuki said.

Staying away from Africa

Conversations with the returnees revealed several concerns at individual and institutional level. While acknowledging that some of the decisions they make are motivated by personal reasons, most of them lamented about the bureaucracies in the universities and research companies the former PhD students looked forward to coming back home to work for. The former PhD students often ended up being questioned about “letters whose purposes we do not comprehend”, delays in procuring reagents, and hierarchical decision making. Since some of the labs are the only ones of their kind in the entire country, with the equipment needed for their scientific work, they are left with little or no choice, but to endure the struggles.

The returnees also hinted at a gaping chasm between the needs of the country for researchers communicated to them when they get scholarships to study, and how they are treated when they try to meet that deficiency: “When going abroad to study, you are told to come back home because your set of skills is needed, and then when you land here, there are too many hurdles from the same institution, to allow you to practice”

The returnees have found strategies of coping with these challenges, such as staying in the countries from where they acquired their PhDs, and conducting research, partnering with a home institution while they are abroad.

Pan African organizations, such as the African Academy of Sciences, have recognized the struggle that the young scientists face, and responded by creating initiatives to offer finances and support for soft skills to enable them to navigate their circumstances such as proposal writing. However, only time will tell whether it will solve the challenges of the returnees.

Money and a deliberate adjustment of research institutions is needed

This article highlighted the struggles of young African researchers, especially in the biomedical field. There is a chronic shortage of PhDs in the continent to build a critical mass of researchers, and this is exacerbated by a poor state of the education system in the continent. Therefore, aspiring researchers have sought education abroad mostly through scholarships, in which one of the conditions is that they will come back home and contribute to alleviating the shortage of researchers. Many of the PhDs returned home to a bureaucratic system that makes it difficult for them to employ and use their skills. 14 PhDs who spoke to this writer cited bureaucracy as the biggest challenge, second to lack of funding. The PhDs have employed strategies to cope with this including remaining in the countries they trained in. Noting the researchers’ disillusionments, donor and pan African organisations have instituted fellowships such as FLAIR which not only gives the researchers money for their work but also mentorship. To make PhDs interested in coming back home, money and a deliberate adjustment of research institutions is needed.

Verah Vashti Okeyo is a Global Health Reporter with Nation Media Group and based in Nairobi, Kenya

[1] Turner, Simon, and Nauja. Kleist. 2013. “Introduction: Agents of Change? Staging and Governing Diasporas and the African State.” African Studies. 72 (2): 192–206.

[2] Åkesson, Lisa, and Maria Eriksson Baaz, eds. 2015. Africa’s Return Migrants: The New Developers? London; New York, N.Y.: Zed Books.

[3] Hammond, Laura (2011) “Obliged to Give: Remittances and the Maintenance of Transnational Networks Between Somalis at Home and Abroad,” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies: Vol. 10, Article 11. Available at: