Universiteit Leiden

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New research programme for urgent challenges in Africa

Leiden University and four other Dutch universities will appoint 51 PhD candidates to conduct solution-oriented research for and with the African continent. They will focus on urgent challenges such as climate change, the energy transition, accessible and affordable global healthcare, political stability and governance, access to clean water and sustainable urban development.

The GROW (Graduate Research on Worldwide Challenges) research programme will start next summer under the leadership of TU Delft. Half of its funding (€6.9 million) comes from the European Union. The goal is for young research talent to bridge the gap between Africa and the Netherlands. The five universities involved are Leiden University, VU Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam, Erasmus University Rotterdam and TU Delft.

Co-creation with African partners

For the GROW programme, the Dutch universities are joining forces with 22 academic partners from Africa and 17 civil society partners working in Africa. Together, they will look for PhD candidates from around the world who will conduct scientifically challenging research in the Netherlands on important questions relating to inclusive global development and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This will improve our understanding of current challenges and provide opportunities to develop and test possible solutions. The cooperation between the partners will also serve to strengthen the relationship between the Netherlands and the African continent.

Integrated approach

Africa is a priority in Leiden University’s Strategic Plan and a university-wide Africa strategy will soon see the light of day. ‘With its African Studies Centre and network of researchers specialising in Africa, Leiden University has been collaborating with African researchers for years’, says Annetje Ottow, President of the Executive Board. ‘We want to intensify our collaboration with universities, research institutes, NGOs, African students and early-stage researchers. The huge increase in population in African cities in particular, climate change, health and security are issues that require an integrated approach and multidisciplinary and equal cooperation with African partners. It’s fantastic that we can do this in the GROW consortium together with Dutch universities.’

A different perspective

Marleen Dekker, Director of the African Studies Centre and Leiden University’s coordinator in the GROW consortium, adds: ‘It’s great that we can set to work with over 50 new PhD candidates, many of whom will be from Africa. With more than 100 supervisors from Dutch universities and the enthusiastic support of African universities, companies, government and NGOs, we can offer great research places for the PhD candidates and they will help us see developments on the continent from a different perspective. Leiden has traditionally had a strong interest in collaborating in Africa: alongside the African Studies Centre, the Netherlands Institute Morocco (NIMAR), Leiden Observatory, the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML) and the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies are also participating in this initiative.’

Previous successful PhD research

The inspiration for the GROW programme comes from previous successful projects that involved African PhD candidates in SDG-related research. Kassim Assouma, who received a PhD from Leiden University in September 2022, conducted research on the informal economy – some 80 per cent of the African workforce works in the informal sector. Assouma investigated the position of motorbike taxi drivers (zémidjan) in Benin, who in recent years have increasingly organised themselves into unions. While the political influence of their organisations increased, the taxi drivers themselves did not feel that their position improved in a general sense.

Assouma found that while the taxi drivers’ working conditions did improve, they remained extremely dissatisfied because of the negative image associated with their profession. They aspired to another profession with a higher social status. A complicating factor is that many union leaders now belong to the elite thanks to their mediating role with other parties. They managed to achieve that much-desired higher social status.

Assouma’s research provided important insights into the professionalisation of the informal sector, such as the importance of consultation and feedback in newly formed unions. His work is used by the International Labor Organisation (ILO), among others, and he works as a consultant for clients such as the World Bank, CNV International and Bureau Afrique.

Recruiting PhD candidates

The Dutch and African partners are now preparing to recruit candidates together. Applications will be welcome from 1 December. The PhD candidates will be embedded in the network of researchers and community stakeholders from summer 2024, and will then start working on their groundbreaking and impactful research.

More information about the GROW programme.

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