Outsiders are being persuaded that field research must have practical benefits for communities
In the chemistry department, on the stiflingly hot campus of Dar-es-Salaam University in Tanzania, Mayunga Nkunya, is celebrating. He has just heard that scientists down the coast in Madagascar have made a deal with a big pharmaceutical company over an interesting local plant with anti-diabetic properties.
The reason Professor Nkunya is rejoicing is that the deal specifies that any benefits from the project will be shared between scientists from the Institut Malagache de Recherche Appliquees and the drug company. Nkunya, who is a professor of organic chemistry and executive secretary for Napreca, natural products research network for eastern and central Africa, thinks this is a first for the region.
But news like this is the exception. Professor Nkunya's work with Napreca is based on promoting the sharing of the tools and information needed to investigate one of Africa's great scientific resources - plants and local knowledge of how to use them as medicines. This, emphasise two of the university's teachers, Professor Ophelia Mascarenhas and Adolfo Mascarenhas, should be one of the key areas into which African academics pour their energies. It is a truly African resource, promising new medicines, insecticides and other useful products, with some of the primary work already done by local people.
But up until now, it has not been like that; the tale has been one of disintegration of local understanding, and of knowledge being siphoned off by outsiders who have not bothered to consult Tanzanian academics. Where once local people might have been able to identify up to 400 different plants, the recent message has been that "real" knowledge is only to be found in text books - an influence that has lured children away from traditional learning.
Dr Mascarenhas, who is a geographer and former chairman of the Tanzanian Forestry Institute, says: "It would, of course, be infinitely more fun for schoolchildren to be taken out into the forest."
Systematising this knowledge and training Tanzanians to provide a pool of botanists and botany schoolteachers, could be prohibitively expensive, however. According to one PhD student, who wanted to study the medicinal properties of several local plants, the cost of getting each specimen analysed overseas would be Pounds 800. Another obstacle for people working in African countries is the expense of gathering information from worldwide sources, even through journals. It can be hard for academics to know whether or not they are doing original work. And when the outside world does step in to help, unacceptable conditions may be attached to the involvement of Tanzanian researchers.
Professor Nkunya, for one, is still negotiating with a company that wants to investigate plant chemistry with him three years after discussions began.
"People are interested in us collecting and sending off plants," she says, "but that's not what we want. We are talking about profits." A fair contract, he says, would allow him to build up information in the form of training botanists. "If we just collect plants or make extracts we are not doing this." Sometimes outsiders by-pass the university altogether, just helping themselves to the local flora. Dr Mascarenhas says: "We have no way of knowing what they are finding."
Professor Nkunya gives another example of the inherent injustice. While in the Netherlands he came across a plant that was collected from his local area, a chance discovery made while leafing through a journal. He found a description of an alkaloid derived from root-bark collected in the city "near the university". There was no mention of any Tanzanian academics, though the bush is reserved for the training of students.
Professor Nkunya's department is working to find new compounds from Tanzanian plants not yet officially catalogued. One of these plants has yielded five new compounds, another three compounds. The department of botany is making an inventory of forest plants, working with the charity Frontier. The university will retain the rights to any discoveries. Meanwhile, a programme to record all medicinal plants in the country is nearly half-completed.
In a further move to combat the organisational problems, the nine member countries of Napreca, which include Sudan, Madagascar, Uganda, Botswana and Rwanda as well as the founder countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, coordinate their research, use each other's equipment and run symposia and training workshops.
Most importantly, Napreca enables them to talk to each other, helping them overcome what Nkunya says has been the biggest obstacle to developing botany in East Africa - isolation.