Diamond awarded £3.7M grant to fund research crucial to Africa: Energy and healthcare

Today (27 March 2019) saw the official launch of START (Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology), a £3.7M grant awarded to a consortium of researchers led by Diamond Light Source by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to work with African scientists on START.


Africa does not yet have a synchrotron light source, but African researchers are keen to apply synchrotron techniques to their research problems. The START project will fund research posts in Africa and the UK with a focus on two key areas crucial to development in Africa – energy and healthcare . The scientific results that come out of the project will be valuable in themselves, and may also lead to commercial applications, but START will also promote the development of research capabilities within Africa, and international research collaborations.

For Diamond Principal Investigator, Prof. Chris Nicklin, this will be the most important result:

It is an exciting prospect to work together on these challenging problems and this funding will enable us to form very strong links at all levels, in particular helping to train the next generation of researchers in nations that have not had the chance to access and exploit synchrotron based techniques in their research. The work will focus around the development needs of African countries, driven by the Africa-based investigators and the non-government organisations (NGOs) that we have on board.

START researchers will investigate Energy Materials, including solar cell research and the development of catalysts and batteries.  This is vital because 600 million people (70% of the population) in sub-Saharan Africa live without electricity, and a reliable electricity supply is one of the most powerful tools for lifting people out of poverty and ending their dependency on aid[1].

Prof. Dave Billing from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg says he looks forward to developing their use of synchrotron techniques:

Being able to access the unique techniques offered by a synchrotron like Diamond is a step change for us in skills development as well as an opportunity to compete with our science on a world stage.

START’s second focus area is structural biology, with a focus on African diseases such as malaria, TB, and African horse sickness – a highly infectious and deadly disease that affects horses, mules and donkeys, which is devastating for the local farming industry. Prof. Trevor Sewell from the University of Cape Town explains:

START will allow us to solve the detailed structure of proteins involved in diseases that are prevalent across Africa. Training researchers in these techniques will provide a real boost to our research.

The project includes links to African non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the African Science Leadership Programme, the African Network for Solar Energy (ANSOLE) and the Global Young Academy (GYA), which will help to develop the programme with African researchers. Prof. Moritz Riede from the University of Oxford is Chair of the GYA, and says,

The GYA promotes international collaborations and we are pleased that this grant includes several members from both Africa and the UK

STFC awarded the funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a 5-year £1.5Bn fund that is a key component in the delivery of the UK Aid Strategy, ensuring that UK research takes a leading role in addressing the problems faced by developing countries through research and innovation. With funding through to 2021, START is set to have a significant positive impact in Africa.  

 For more information on the START project, visit: www.start-project.org