27 No. 3
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Emerging Issues in Developing Countries
series, coordinated by Jan-Åke Jönsson, seeks to
inform readers, explore new ideas, and promote discussion
on themes related to developing countries and emerging analytical
communities. The first article in this series, “How
Can IUPAC Facilitate International Collaborative Research?”
was published in the March-April 2005 CI. If you
wish to contribute to this series, please contact <email@example.com>.
Challenges of Practicing Analytical Chemistry in Sub-Saharan Africa
by Nelson Torto
Practicing analytical chemistry can be rewarding and challenging as it impacts on agriculture, health, and the environment. Therefore, analytical chemistry is an important tool for helping people living in poverty. For example, analytical chemistry can reveal harmful pathogens or substances in air and drinking water that are making people sick.
It is generally the research needs of the developed world that dictate the pace and direction of analytical chemistry research. Thus, because of the huge gap between the developed and the developing world in the ability to harness technology, analytical chemistry needs and demands are different in the two worlds.
The challenge for analytical chemists working in Sub-Saharan Africa is to maintain a role in their own country, and also to keep in pace with, and establish a profile amongst international colleagues. To achieve this aim they have to publish in international journals with a high impact factor, and attend key conferences where their research findings can be presented. The problems presented by such a situation are twofold. For chemists from developing countries, the cutting-edge research necessary for recognition might have no relevance to the critical research, such as developing life-saving medicine, that is a priority in their home countries. This occurs because either there is no parallel thinking amongst administrators to adopt the findings or simply no capacity to institute the new technologies. Secondly, the research findings published in international journals might be inaccessible to colleagues within the region where similar experiences need to be shared.
The obvious problem is that there is no mechanism for disseminating analytical chemistry findings that might help disadvantaged populations, but might not necessarily be cutting edge. It is likely that two neighboring scientists might never be able to share their findings simply because of poor access to international publications. Through IUPAC it might be possible to explore a mechanism by which regionally important research findings can be reviewed, evaluated, and published, thus ensuring widespread access.
In a recent IUPAC-sponsored conference organized by the Southern and Eastern Africa Network of Analytical Chemists (SEANAC), it was very clear that most analytical chemists in Africa were working on various aspects of metal and pesticide analysis. These might not necessarily be hot research topics, but the emphasis on these fields would indicate that there is a need to evaluate and document these research findings for the better good of those who are still concerned about such issues.
Connectivity is another major problem that is faced by many scientists. Many institutions, almost 15 years after the introduction of reliable and fast connectivity through the Internet, are still struggling to maintain reliable e-mail and Internet service. There are very few countries in Africa that have institutions with a robust e-mail system. It is not uncommon for an institution to be cut-off from the rest of the world for several weeks. The limitations imposed by poor connectivity can make it hard to be a reputable scientist. For example, scientists may be unable to receive weekly alerts from journals, to communicate with other scientists, and to respond in a timely fashion to communications from journal editors.
There are other challenges that need to be noted, including the acquisition and maintenance of scientific instrumentation and locating reliable suppliers of chemicals. Because suppliers are mainly from the developed world, it is not always possible to get the service that would ensure maximizing the usage of instrumentation. Generally, service delivery is slow, and at times unpredictable. In order to address these limitations, the Network of Users of Scientific Equipment of Southern Africa (NUSESA), has been established as an initiative for scientific users to share experiences, spare parts, and instrumentation. Similarly, the Network for Analytical and Bioassay in Africa (NABSA) also provides free analytical services, mainly mass spectrometry and NMR analysis to scientists in Africa. These initiatives ensure that the research efforts of those who can’t access advanced instrumentation are not restricted.
The acquisition of chemicals is a special problem for scientists who live in small countries that are also landlocked. Major suppliers have given rights to a few vendors through which all orders should be made. Although this might have been a good idea in the past, as it generally lowered the freight costs, with the advent of secure Internet connections and credit cards, it is not justifiable that the old system continues to operate. Such an arrangement is complicated by the recent events of September 11. Chemicals imported especially from the USA may require permits that are only issued for transport to one country without an allowance for further export to a landlocked country. A direct purchase by credit card could circumvent this problem, rather than the present vendor scenario.
A single solution for all these problems is not feasible. However SEANAC addresses these issues by collaborating with other networks such as NUSESA, NABSA, and the African Network for Analysis of Pesticides. This collaboration has resulted in workshops, conferences, and short visits that allow analytical chemists to share facilities, expertise, and experiences, and thus maximize resources. Most of what has been achieved to date is credited to the continued financial support through Sida/SAREC (the Swedish International Development Coopertion Agency, Department for Research Cooperation), either directly or through the International Programme in the Chemical Sciences at Uppsala University, Sweden. The Chemistry Department at the University of Botswana, because it is endowed with state-of-the-art facilities that include NMR (300 and 600 mHz), LC/GC-MS, SEM/TEM, XRD and ICP/MS, has generously assisted most of the networks by either hosting short courses or researchers. One hopes that as more universities and organizations become involved, including IUPAC, some of these issues might find a solution sooner so as to allow scientist to focus on addressing pressing matters in the agriculture, health, and environment sectors.
is a lecturer in general and analytical chemistry at the University
of Botswana, with strong links to the University of Lund (Sweden)
from which he obtained his Ph.D. His research interests are
in the areas of sampling and sample handling for biological
and environmental samples. Torto joined the IUPAC
Analytical Chemistry Division (ACD) in 2004 as a provisional
member. He has been actively involved in promoting analytical
chemistry in Botswana and on the African continent in general.
In addition, he played a leading role in the formation of
the Southern and Eastern Africa network for Analytical Chemists,
which held its inaugural conference in July 2003 in Gaborone
(Botswana) (see Teamwork, the ACD newsletter <www.iupac.org/divisions/V/Teamwork>,
issue No. 6, Nov 2003). He is working on the creation of channels
for the promotion, education, and training of African scientists
and standardized curriculum for analytical chemistry.
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