Capacity building and skills development for health innovation in Africa


The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre, the H3D Foundation and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) hosted a showcase at the 2022 EU-Africa Business Forum (EABF). The event took place online on Friday, 18 February – the final day of the EABF programme.

Titled “H3D: Paving the way towards sustainable capacity building and skills development models for health innovation in Africa”, the showcase sought to achieve three main goals: highlight the importance of creating an absorptive capacity to attract, develop, nurture and retain skills; identify the best capacity-building models and how these can be scaled and made sustainable; and highlight the need for a skills roadmap for equitable health innovation.

Sustainable growth and decent jobs

Aimed at increasing opportunities of sustainable economic cooperation, the EABF presents an opportunity for businesspeople and policymakers to discuss how to improve the trade and investment climate to encourage economic partnership opportunities between the continents.

This year’s theme, “Building stronger value chains for sustainable growth and decent jobs”, reflects the core tenet of the EU-African Union (AU) partnership: working together on strategic, long-term partnership to develop a shared vision for EU-Africa relations in a globalised world.

Developing these value chains – both between the EU and Africa as well as within the continent – is critical not only for business, but also for supporting sustainable development in Africa and ensuring that living conditions improve for African citizens.

Building absorptive capacity

The H3D Centre is the first integrated drug discovery and development institution in Africa. Founded at UCT in 2010, it pioneers world-class drug discovery to develop life-saving medicines for communicable diseases that predominantly affect African patients. Its research touches on antimicrobial resistance, malaria, tuberculosis and, most recently, COVID-19.

With the vision of becoming the leading organisation for integrated drug discovery and development on the African continent, H3D is focused on building Africa-specific models that contribute to improving treatment outcomes in African patients. Bolstering this is their goal of drug discovery capacity building, which involves educating African scientists in drug discovery-related sciences.

“We aim to reduce barriers for African scientists to break new ground within the drug discovery-related sciences.”

According to the centre, “Through our capacity-building initiatives, and with support from our numerous partners and collaborators, we aim to reduce barriers for African scientists to break new ground within the drug discovery-related sciences. With the overall objective to build new capabilities and continue to strengthen existing competencies in this discipline across Africa.”

Speaker at the forum and the director of H3D, Professor Kelly Chibale, noted that there are plenty of skills in Africa; what is needed is to ensure that there are jobs available on the continent. “Every African government, after gaining independence, has embarked on a programme to develop and train its people.

“Yet, today, despite decades and decades of training, we are still dealing will a skills shortage. What we are seeing is not that African science is dead and buried; it is alive and living, but in the Global North. The question is: What is the opportunity that we have given that context?

“I believe that opportunity, at this point, is to create absorptive capacity that will ensure we not only attract the talent, but we develop it and we retain it on the African continent to ensure we are able to participate in healthy innovation,” he explained.

To achieve this outcome, Professor Chibale explained, it is necessary not only to build capacity in a sustainable manner, but also to create partnerships that are fit for purpose.

“It is necessary to create sustainable networks of partnerships and models that are not just about research but about funding, [and] which involve academia, industry, governments, product development partners and philanthropic organisations. The outcome of this approach is that, together, we share the risks and we share the benefits,” he added.

African scientists for Africa

Considering these goals, the IFPMA is a natural fit to partner with H3D. The association represents regional and national associations and research-based biopharmaceutical companies around the world with a focus on promoting sustainable solutions to encourage innovation and improve patients’ health.

To do this, the IFPMA engages health and research players to facilitate the co-creation of sustainable policies and initiatives. Through this collaborative approach, the association works to promote policies that foster innovation, resilient regulatory systems and high standards of quality, uphold ethical practices, and advocate sustainable health policies.

Director General of the IFPMA, Thomas Cueni, echoed Chibale’s assertions that creating absorptive capacity in Africa should be a primary goal over the coming years.


“Supporting sustainability can lead to Africa becoming independent, autonomous and more self-reliant on important issues like the health and well-being of its citizens.”

“Anybody who believes that science in Africa is poor simply needs to look at the research that is happening at UCT and H3D, and how many African scientists are working in Europe. I personally believe that we need to ensure that these African scientists work in Africa, and we need to help that change happen.

“Africa suffers from 25% of the global burden of infectious diseases, but only 2% of global research on infectious disease is done in Africa. So the aim, as shown during this week, is to advance further developed skill sets, to make sure that Africa has manufacturing capacity and to employ the individuals with these developed skills,” he said.

To ensure that this capacity building is successful and that equitable outcomes are achieved for Africa, Cueni pointed out, a strong regulatory system and sustainability plan are required.

“The second element that is essential is to build a strong regulatory system. The IFPMA represents global innovative companies and we have been involved with those who really want to make the African Medicines Agency happen. Having a centralised agency to ensure that people are receiving high-quality, safe and effective medications and treatments, especially in the face of something like COVID-19, is important.

“Another thing that is important is to have a joined common interest in sustainability. Supporting sustainability can lead to Africa becoming independent, autonomous and more self-reliant on important issues like the health and well-being of its citizens,” he said.

In addition to Chibale and Cueni, attendees of the showcase heard from the director of Health Innovation at the Department of Science and Innovation, Glaudina Loots; as well as Jutta Reinhard-Rupp, the head of Merck Global Health Institute; and Jonathan Spector, the vice president and head of Global Health Strategy and Access to Innovation at Novartis. Discussions were moderated by the IFPMA’s Belinda Bhoodoo.


Article was written by University of Cape Town and first published here.