My journey into science: Personal narratives from five young African women

As part of our series on education, we spoke to five young female scientists from across the continent about their journey into science and the work that they’re conducting.



11 February marks the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As part of our series on education, we spoke to five young female scientists from across the continent about their journey into science and the work that they’re conducting. All are L’Oréal–UNESCO Women in Science 2020 laureates.

Only 2.4% of the world’s researchers are African, 31% of whom are women.

The L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Sub-Saharan Africa Programme, launched in 2010, rewards 20 women scientists each year for the excellence of their work, supporting them to pursue their research through grants of €10,000 for PhD students and €15,000 for post-doctorates. 

The 2020 Young Talents, from the 11th edition of the programme, come from 16 countries and embody all of the potential of African science through their backgrounds and research subjects. For the first time, young women scientists from Congo and Malawi have been rewarded.

The jury of the 2020 Sub-Saharan Africa Programme, chaired by Professor Nelson Torto, Executive Director of the African Academy of Sciences, selected the 20 Young Talents from nearly 330 applications. The 2020 Sub-Saharan Africa Young Talents will join the community of 3,400 women researchers around the world, who have been supported by the For Women in Science Programme since its creation in 1998.  

This is a most timely and necessary initiative. In colonial times, African progress was held back, as Africans were pushed to study humanities rather than sciences. “We need less lawyers and more engineers”, is a call that is often heard. The AU’s Africa 2063 agenda actually includes a chapter on elevating Africa through improved education and through the application of science and technology.

An article back in 2017 by academic Swapan Kumar Patra at the Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa looked at research papers around engineering coming from Africa, compared to other regions. Africa came bottom of the list with 75,157 scholarly articles about engineering between 1996 and 2016 compared to over three million for Asia, around two million each for Europe and North America and 293,101 for the Middle East. 

Much of Africa’s output (over 50,000) came from just three countries, South Africa, Algeria and Tunisia. 

The good news is that the number of articles published had considerably increased from 1,000/year in 1996 to 9,000 in 2016. Yet we know that much more needs to be done, not just in engineering but in science and technology. 

If ever we need a reminder, Covid-19 has heightened the urgency for African self-sufficiency in medicine and everything that goes with it. Not to mention sufficiency in everything we consider essential.

As our five talented scientists reveal, we need more role models in science and we also need to find a solution to the issue of funding. The Chinese know that the economic contest will be one around talent and brains. In 2019, total public and private sector science and technology expenditures in China rose 12.5% over the previous year to approximately $350bn. The sum will only keep rising. They are second to the US which spends some $500bn every year.

But to ensure we don’t lose our best brains to the rest of the world, we need to ensure that they have outlets after their studies. Africa counts 365 pharmaceutical companies. This compares with 7,000+ in China and 11,000+ in India, the three with similar populations. Because, as one of our profile subjects reminds us, there is no one better placed to solve our problems than ourselves.

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