Lem Ngongalah a Cameroonian academic and the founder of CORE Africa, an organization which supports African academics’ research. R:Ed sat down with Lem at Reimagine Education in London to discuss her work and the future of research work across Africa.
R:Ed: Could give us a short introduction to yourself, your title and your job?
I’m Lem Ngongalah, founder of CORE Africa. At the moment I’m finishing my PhD at Newcastle University while also running the program. The organization is based in Cameroon and we’re also registered in the UK.
R:Ed: Could you tell us about what CORE Africa does and what your role as Program Coordinator and co-founder entails?
Yes. CORE Africa is an organization that aims to increase awareness of the importance of research in Africa. While being a student I realized that there’s a lack of awareness on the importance of research in Africa. African researchers also face challenges in terms of skills and funding. CORE Africa is therefore aiming to first of all raise awareness about the importance of research in general. We have programs for different cohorts of students. Our programs for secondary school students relate to their general knowledge of research and getting them to understand why people do research and why they too should do research at university. For university students we run a mentorship program that guides them in doing their research projects, and also helping them to understand why it’s necessary to share their research findings through conferences and publications and guiding them through the publication process.
R:Ed: With both the mentorship program for university students and high school students the problem that you’re aiming to tackle is low research output levels. Where do you think that comes from? What are the key causes for this and how are you tackling those challenges?
There are statistics out there talking about the number of publications from African countries in general. I’m from a health background, and when you look at the projects that influence healthcare in Africa, they are mostly led by foreign researchers, so we need to develop more homegrown solutions. We can’t keep counting on people to from elsewhere to come in and help us solve the problems that we have in African countries. We need Africans to be part of the process, to not just wait for help to come from somewhere else. So we actually need to help ourselves to address and tackle some of these issues.
R:Ed: You mentioned that your organization is based in Cameroon and it has ties to the country but you’re also working across Africa. Have you found that there are any specific regions or countries that are underrepresented in terms of research capacity within Africa, and how do you tackle those challenges?
I think the only country that is really well represented when it comes to research in Africa is South Africa, and Nigeria is doing well too. But other countries like Cameroon, and other Central African or West African countries aren’t really on the map. They do have a lot of researchers there, the issue isn’t that. But there’s a problem when it comes to research quality, what problems research is targeting, how much research gets published, and whether these research findings get used. We’re addressing the problem by starting from the ground up – by building the research abilities of African students, who are future researchers; and also working to create a research-friendly environment in African countries.
R:Ed: I’m guessing that with the work that you do, there is a relationship between CORE Africa and universities across Africa. How does that tend to work? How do the two institutions interact?
Yes. What we do is we speak to university authorities, because if we get institutions to understand why it’s relevant for their students to publish their research, it’s also good for the profile of the university. Universities don’t want students just working on their research projects, getting findings and then their research never seeing the light of day. University students can do internships through us, and we mentor them. We also take away some of the work from the supervisors; students often have supervisors for their research project, but supervisors have a lot of work and students sometimes don’t have enough support from their supervisors. So we’re kind of an intermediary between the students and the research supervisor.
R:Ed: CORE Africa’s mission of boosting research capacity in Africa is a longer-term endeavour. With that in mind, in an ideal world, what would the higher education system look like with respect to research in 10 years?
In an ideal world, we want students upon leaving school to understand, first of all, why they need to do research. We did a study where we asked students what they think about research. They said things like, ‘It’s something I have to do, I don’t know why I have to do it, I don’t like it, I think it’s not interesting, I think it’s difficult’ and things like that. So, in secondary school, we want them to realize why research is important. We want them to think about things like, if they had the power to change something in their society, what would they change? We want them to get into the habit of observing and questioning what happens around them, so by the time they get to university, they’ll have this background knowledge about the importance of research. At university, we want students to be better supported when doing their research. Research should be something you do because you’re passionate about what you’re doing and because your findings could influence your society. We want students to feel more supported when doing research, and hopefully the research output of African countries will increase.
R:Ed: Let’s hope that that will be the case! As a final question, given that you are pioneering a project like this, who or what inspires you in your day to day life?
I’m inspired by results. If I’m working on something, and I see that something can come out what I’m doing, it just gets me going. I also see how things have been changing with time. We’ve developed a platform; I remember when we only had one person following our platform on social media. I remember we were thinking, how do we get students to like us and think about the things we’re doing? And now we have over 3000 followers, students are messaging us every day and telling us how before they heard about CORE Africa, they would never read anything about research, but now we’ve made it more interesting for them. So I’m actually seeing results and that motivates me to do more.