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The Africa Rapid Grant Fund: From concept to call in just over a month


How an African science granting network created a Covid-19 programme in record time

Just over six weeks ago, South Africa’s National Research Foundation met virtually with the International Development Research Centre of Canada to discuss a possible funding partnership tackling Covid-19 in Africa.

A little over a month later, on 18 May, the NRF, the IDRC and a handful of other global and African research funders opened the US$4.75 million Africa Rapid Grant Fund for research proposals to study Covid-19, to fund public engagement activities to fight misinformation about the pandemic, and to advance science advice. 

It’s not rare for a group of funders to launch joint calls tackling a common priority, says Aldo Stroebel, NRF executive director of strategic programmes. But it often takes much longer than five weeks. 

“The crisis presses us to do this with urgency, whereas one usually has the luxury of time to have long negotiations,” he told Research Professional.

The programme is funded a consortium of funders and development partners, including the NRF and the IDRC in partnership with South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation, the Fonds de Recherche du Québec (a provincial Canadian research funder), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the United Kingdom government via its Newton Fund and Department for International Development (see Q&A below for who paid what). 

African research funders participated fully in planning the grant programme through the Science Granting Councils Initiative, which aims to strengthen research funders in 15 sub-Saharan African countries. All the funders of the rapid research fund are also backers of the SGCI.

The programme will fund three types of grants: research grants, engagement grants for public communications, and engagement grants for advising governments. 

For the engagement grants, applications are welcomed from professionals from the SGCI countries—Botswana, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe—as well as from South Africa and Nigeria. 

For the research grants, applicants can come from any institution in the SGCI countries. In South Africa and Nigeria only institutions that are members of the African Research Universities Alliance can lead proposals, but all other institutions in those countries can join projects in a collaborating capacity. Research projects can deal with a range of themes, from African health system capacity to handle Covid-19, to mental health issues brought on by the pandemic.

The deadline for applications is 17 June. Stroebel had this to say about the origin of the programme and how proposals will be judged.

How did this joint call come about?

It started through a discussion with the IDRC, given our strong partnership and co-investment in the SGCI, on what an appropriate response could be to the pandemic. We then reached out to our other partners, and the SGCI participating councils, and built from there. We decided to include science engagement since it’s one of the thematic focus areas of the Global Research Council, which was due to hold its annual meeting in Durban this year. In fact, it was meant to have taken place this week but was postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic. 

Is this a new way of doing things, precipitated by the current crisis? 

Yes and no. Multilateral research programmes and joint funding around a common theme are becoming common, but they usually take much longer to put together. The newness here is the rapidity with how this has been put together, and the large amount of funding that was secured in such a short time. 

How will funding panels be put together? 

The NRF will administer the whole fund and all the proposals will be submitted online through the NRF system. People can apply in either French or English. Screening will take place through each country’s science granting council, and the shortlist of applications will then be sent out for a one-stage virtual evaluation process. All the participating countries have provided a list of international reviewers, and at least three reviewers will evaluate each proposal. 

Will the winning proposals be chosen to ensure a good geographic spread? 

The bottom line for consideration is excellence. But the proposals on the shortlist will be selected so final grants are inclusive with regards to geography, language, and gender. The call is a response to challenges in Africa, and will be inclusive of all the qualifying countries that can participate. 

So of the financial backers, who paid what? 

The IDRC contributed US$1.8m and the FRQ US$180,000. Sweden’s SIDA put in just over US$1m. UK Research and Innovation, through the Newton Fund, added US$570,000, and DFID US$512,000. As for South Africa, the Department of Science and Innovation is putting in US$819,000, and the NRF US$ 540,000. The total sum is equivalent to about 90 million South African Rand.