Why Our Work is Needed

Navigating challenging policy issues

African countries face a range of serious challenges related to expanding energy access and adapting to climate change.  When government officials or industry leaders are making decisions on these topics, it’s often not clear up front what the right policy to solve a specific problem will be. However, leaders can make better decisions if they have access to timely, high quality research on the specific issues that their countries are facing. Similarly, ordinary citizens can do a better job of holding their elected officials to account if they can easily learn about the policy issues affecting their country.

Government officials and industry leaders are often keen to learn more about policy solutions, but face constraints on both the supply of and the demand for locally relevant research. On the supply side, it’s widely acknowledged that the current ability of African scholars to produce this type of locally relevant research is limited. The majority of academic and policy research on African issues is carried out by scholars at institutions outside the continent. In 2014, sub-Saharan Africa had 15% of the world’s population, but produced less than 1% of published research output in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Even in the field of African studies, where African researchers should be uniquely well-placed to contribute new knowledge, only 15% of articles in top journals were written by scholars based in Africa.

In 2014, sub-Saharan Africa had 15% of the world’s population, but produced less than 1% of published research output in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
— The World Bank, "Improving the Quality and Quantity of Scientific Research in Africa" (2014)

Constraints on research Output and uptake

In 2013, government R&D expenditures were 0.4% of GDP in sub-Saharan African countries, compared to a world average of 1.6%, and 2.2% for high income countries.
— UNESCO, "UNESCO Science Report: Toward 2030" (2015)

Lack of domestic research funding is a major constraint on African academic productivity. Unlike researchers in Europe or North America, African researchers generally cannot access funding through their governments or through private foundations in their own countries. According to UNESCO, in 2013 the gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) as a percentage of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa was 0.4%, compared to 1.6% world average and 2.2% for high income countries.  Thus, African researchers are frequently forced to compete for a limited pool of international research grants, where their lack of strong professional networks outside their own countries can put them at a disadvantage. 

Despite these challenges, there are still a number of successful African scholars studying the most pressing issues in their societies – and we believe it’s quite feasible to keep increasing these numbers. However, we must also be cognisant of constraints on the demand for research by government and industry leaders. First, these decisionmakers often have heavy workloads, and lack the time to do in-depth research on specific issues. Second, they might not know exactly where to find the most up-to-date research on a topic, or whom to turn to for advice. Third, they can find it challenging to evaluate the quality of the research that they do come across.  For example, a recent study found that staff at Kenya's Parliamentary Research Service most often use newspaper reports and government briefings when conducting background research on policy issues, even though fact-checking organisations indicate that local newspapers often make claims that are not well-supported by data.  (Nor is this unique to Africa – most American elected officials also report that newspapers are their primary source of new policy information.)

The role of thought leadership

One way to circumvent some of these supply and demand constraints is to increase the number of African scholars who are thought leaders in their fields.  We define a thought leader as someone who is an expert in their field; who has a public platform to communicate their research findings and policy recommendations; and who is recognised as a trusted source of accurate and relevant information by leaders in government and industry. Thought leaders increase the supply of locally relevant research by identifying problems that are facing their societies, and carrying out high quality research aimed at finding solutions. They can also avoid some of the demand-side challenges by building relationships with key decisionmakers in their sector and identifying effective channels to deliver research findings to this audience.


A thought leader is someone who is an expert in their field; who has a public platform to communicate their research results; and who is recognised as a trusted source of accurate and relevant information by leaders in government and industry.
— The Mawazo Institute

While we feel that one of the most important roles of thought leadership is to influence the decisions made by government and industry leaders, there is also an important public-facing role for these individuals. African thought leaders can also serve as public scholars, making high quality research on pressing development issues accessible to their fellow citizens. There is real demand for this type of publicly available policy analysis. According to the 2016 Afrobarometer survey, more than 51% of Kenyans say they are either somewhat or very interested in public affairs, and 87% say they get news from the radio either daily or several times a week. Kenyan scholars are uniquely well positioned to get the public engaged with their research by holding lectures, writing op-eds in local papers, or going on local-language radio or TV shows to discuss their work. This in turn makes it easier for ordinary citizens to stay up to date with the policy issues facing the country, and evaluate whether their leaders are handling them well.

Developing female thought leaders

Only 20 - 35% of students at universities in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are women.
— Jane Onsongo, "Affirmative Action, Gender Equity and University Admissions – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania" (2014)

At the Mawazo Institute, our goal is not only to support the next generation of African thought leaders, but to make sure that women’s voices feature prominently in high-level policy discussions.  African women face a number of structural barriers as they seek to become subject matter experts and have their work recognised by leaders in government and industry. Most notably, women’s enrollment in BA, MA, and PhD programmes lags badly behind that of men. A recent study of universities in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania found that only 20 – 35% of students were women.  For women who do go on to post-graduate study, this means that they are generally navigating through old boys’ clubs at their academic institutions.  They must deal with pervasive sexism and a lack of institutional support for their careers, as well as facing the same funding constraints as male researchers. Ultimately, the important contributions that they could make to development-oriented research are all too often lost.

Supporting the research careers of African women isn’t just a feel-good issue. A number of studies have shown that organisations which have more women in leadership roles are more productive.  There also is a widespread belief across Africa that women are able to come up with policy ideas that are better for promoting development and ending conflict at the local level. For example, Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as its first female president after its 1989 – 2003 civil wars, partly on the strength of the belief that a woman would do more to promote peace and development.  Similarly, Rwanda has strongly encouraged women to run for Parliament after the end of its 1990 – 1994 civil war, with the hope that they would prevent the country from falling back into conflict. Today, Rwanda has the world’s highest percentage of female parliamentarians, at 64% of all MPs.  Mawazo’s focus on building female thought leaders complements these efforts to increase women’s authority in society.