7 Key Aspects of Supporting Research in Developing Countries

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a list of Sweden’s Ideal Employers in 2014, and there it was, at nr #5 – Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

I thought – hey, I worked for them for a while this spring! So I should definitely write a blog about it! And list several amazing aspects of that experience:

1. Reducing poverty. I was lucky enough to get an internship project at SIDA’s Department of Partnerships and Innovations, specifically at the Unit for Research Cooperation. The overall goal of the unit is to strengthen and develop research of relevance to poverty reduction in developing countries, including training of PhD students and financial support of their projects.

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 16.48.08
Prof. Hans Rosling and KI honorary dr Bill Gates discussing the % of development aid resources using lego-like blocks, at Karolinska Institutet’s Aula Medica, March 31st 2014.

2 . Attracting the big fish. Overall, SIDA is an agency that distributes resources allocated by the Swedish government, to developing countries. Think of it as a Swedish equivalent of USAid. Which SIDA of course collaborates with. Among others, they also collaborate with Bill&Melinda Gates foundation. In fact, just a few weeks before I started my work there, Bill Gates was in Stockholm, expressing high hopes and ambitions of this collaborative union. Olivia wrote about his visit to KI, and his awesome presentation with prof. Hans Rosling, which also included a panel discussion. My boss-to-be at SIDA, Hannah Akuffo, was in that panel, and it is both inspiring and amusing to think about it, in retrospect 🙂

3. Fostering diversity. My work at SIDA could be best described as assessment and communication of R&D projects, in particular in Bolivia. In addition, the Unit for Research Cooperation is focused on various research projects in Africa, specifically Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Rwanda and Ethiopia. I didn’t get to learn all the details about the projects there, though I attended some very interesting lectures, for example the one about promoting female condoms in the area, and another about the survey among the Mozambique ’sandwich’ students.

female condoms
Female condoms – and Yours Truly displaying one, weirdly amused, like a proper nerd.

4. Investing in higher education.… ’Sandwich’ student? What’s that?? – you may ask. It is the colloquial term for the concept of the PhD programs supported by SIDA. It means that PhD students alternate their time between the supported country and Sweden, with supervisors at both countries’ institutions. SIDA has had a collaboration to build research capacity in Bolivia since 2000. Bolivia ranks among the last countries in the world in terms of scientific and technological developments. The support from SIDA strives to develop the country’s research capacity, and health is a priority.

Research is still not considered a career opportunity in Bolivia. The lack of funding and sufficient expertise are some of the major challenges. The total number of postdoctoral researchers in Bolivia is only about 300, all of whom received their doctorates abroad. But the collaboration with Swedish universities, supported by SIDA, has increased the students’ interest in pursuing a PhD. With about 30 collaborative projects in total, eleven Swedish universities participate in SIDA’s research support program with Bolivia: Lund University, KTH, Stockholm University, Luleå University of Technology, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Chalmers, Umeå University, Linköping University, Gothenburg University and Karolinska Institutet. SIDA’s total contribution was divided between the two universities Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (UMSA) in La Paz, and the Universidad Mayor de San Simon (UMSS) in Cochabamba. A small amount also goes to the country’s education ministry, for building access to electronic journals for researchers.

5. Developing inner strengths. Bolivia is a country rich in natural resources, but rather than refining the products itself, they are sold to foreign partners. The state budget is still very small, and without education, the quality of the research remains low. But slowly, research is increasingly being prioritized. The national IDH fund, based on the tax from the sale of combustibles, allocates 5% of their funds to the national universities. For the last two years, a small percentage of that money was directly earmarked for research.The support is divided into two parts; one goes to the training of PhD students and “Research Training Partnership Programme”, where research teams in Bolivia collaborate with the Swedish researchers in individual projects focusing on the training of future scientists. The second part of focuses on building research support, i.e. management, organization, policy work, financial systems, career development systems, innovation, technology, research fund, library, IT, etc.

6. Eradicating diseases. Every year, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries die from infectious diseases or suffer ill health because they do not have access to basic healthcare services, essential medicines, or vaccines. In Bolivia in particular, one of the biggest challenges is the health research capacity in the most problematic endemic diseases, namely diarrhea, diabetes, sexually transmitted infections, helminthiasis, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease, and genotoxicity in farmers exposed to pesticides.

In the light of recent ebola outbreak in Africa, SIDA has also given a significant support.

Salar de Uyuni.

7. Fostering innovation. I got to read (and summarize! In Swedish!) all of the collaborative projects and proposals. One of the most interesting ones (from a subjective standpoint at least) is the collaboration between KTH and UMSS, focused on the cloning of the genes which control production of poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB), a polymer component of biologically derived biodegradable plastics. PHB is produced in abundance by Halomonas boliviensis, a native halophile bacterial strain, found in the world’s largest salt flat and Bolivian tourist attraction, the breathtaking Salar de Uyuni.

Some of the Bolivian natural foods and plants.

Another very cool project investigates the value of Bolivian natural foods and plants, and has an amazing potential not only for Bolivian, but for international food market as well. It is a collaboration between Lund University and UMSA. For example, the collaborators discovered that two goosefoot (Chenopodium) endemic Bolivian species, C. palladicaule (also known as canihua) and C. quinoa (also referred to as simply quinoa) have high antioxidant capacities, tolerance to high mountain conditions and high protein and phenolic content. Quinoa is already used worldwide, with canihua’s popularity and crop value also increasing. The United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the “International Year of Quinoa” in recognition of ancestral practices of the Andean people, who have preserved it as food for present and future generations, through traditional knowledge and practices. The objective was to draw the world’s attention to the role that quinoa could play in providing food security, nutrition and poverty eradication, in support of achieving Millennium Development Goals.

Another part of this project included the antioxidant capacity of potato, probably the biggest contribution this part of the world has made to the world’s kitchen. Bolivia has more than 2000 kinds of potato. A traditional process of sun-drying the potatoes using ancient roots, produces the local foods of chuño (black freeze-dried potato) and tunta (white freeze-dried potato), which also proved to be rich in antioxidants and extremely nutritional. Also, they show ideal properties for generating satiety in people who wish to lose weight or go on a diet; furthermore, slow digesting starches may help decrease glucose levels in the blood, which would have great benefits for people with type II diabetes.

The antioxidant research on tunta and chuño also supported and developed further studies on their nutritional and energy value, in particular their starch content. This was the initial step in founding of what is now a first Swedish-Bolivian company, focused on scientific research of natural products. Swebol Biotech is the name chosen by Bolivian and Swedish researchers, which will officially begin operation this year, with the support from several prominent Swedish food companies and Mercosul (economic and political agreement among Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela; with Bolivia becoming an acceding member in 2012).

So there you go. The world may be getting smaller, but it also definitely getting better.

To be continued…

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