African adventures

It was with much excitement that Amy Sarjeant and I headed off to the second Pan African Conference on Crystallography (PCCr2) in Ghana at the end of February. This wasn’t our first visit to the African continent on behalf of the CCDC and each trip has been a memorable and rewarding experience.

Africa is one of the largest continents on the planet with a population of 1.29 billion but it has been reported that as little as 1% of the worlds research output is produced in Africa.[1] Last year we started capturing crystallographer details during deposition and these details include country. This means we can look to see how many structures have been both deposited and published since then with a crystallographer from an African country added during deposition.


Map showing the number of structures added to the CSD that have an African crystallographer listed that were deposited since 2018. The total number of structures from Africa will be much higher and from a wider variety of countries!


Although we have seen the number of structures from Africa rise slightly in recent years, helped by initiatives such as the IUCr-UNESCO OpenLab and the PCCr, you can see that there is still lots of opportunity for further growth. From presentations and conversations at the PCCr2 meeting I am confident that over the next few years this map will become more populated, and it was also encouraging to hear about research using the CSD in institutions where diffractometers are not available.

The CCDC has visited Africa a number of times over the last decade, with Juliette Pradon running workshops in Kenya and Senegal back in 2015[2] and as part of a collaboration with Professor Yav in the Democratic Republic of Congo[3]. My travels in Africa began in 2016 when I travelled with Simon Coles to run a workshop in Kumasi in northern Ghana[4]. The participants were all so enthusiastic and seeing the impact crystallography and the CSD could have on both their research and educational activities was a truly rewarding experience.

My next trip to Africa was to be for the first Pan African Conference on Crystallography (PCCr1) in Cameroon. This turned out to be a fantastic opportunity to engage with a growing community of African crystallographers and everyone who went will agree that the trip was packed with memorable experiences![5]

After returning from PCCr1 and seeing the impact that the CSD can have for researchers in Africa we realised that we needed to do more at the CCDC to support developing countries. This resulted in the launch of the FAIRE Programme at the IUCr Congress meeting in India in 2017.

After the launch of the FAIRE programme, Ian Bruno, Amy Sarjeant and I attended the second International Data Week In Botswana in 2018. What really struck me during the meeting was how access to data remains a bottleneck to national development and how important global partnerships and initiatives are.

Finally, our most recent adventure was in Ghana where my African travels first began. This time the PCCr2 conference partnered with The African Light Source (AfLS2) and the theme of the meeting was ‘Crystallography, a tool for sustainable development in Africa'. This conference turned out to be another personal highlight of my time at the CCDC.

After a vibrant opening ceremony, Amy and I started our part of the conference by hosting a workshop on how participants could use the CSD for research and education. Once again it was great to see so many engaged participants; I think we even had the youngest ever participant to a CCDC workshop!


Some of the participants at the CSD workshop at PCCr2, including the youngest ever CSD workshop attendee.


The following day we attended the Crystal engineering/Structural chemistry session. The session started with Aurora Cruz-Cabeza and Alessia Bacchi giving engaging and thought-provoking talks on turning liquid active ingredients into crystals and polymorphism in molecular crystals, respectively. The highlight of the session for me though was hearing Dzesse Tekouo Christelle, whom we had first met at the PCCr meeting in Cameroon, speak about single crystal to single crystal transformations in metal-organic frameworks. It was a pleasure seeing some of the research that has happened in Africa since PCCr1.

In the afternoon session Amy and I both spoke in the Chemical Databases session chaired by Simon Coles. Between us we gave an overview of the CSD and hopefully provided participants with a flavour of how the CSD can be used in a variety of ways in both education and research. A real stand-out talk in the session was by Samuel Tetteh. I first met Samuel back in 2016 at the workshop in Kumasi and since then he has gone on to apply for the FAIRE Programme and use the CSD in both research and education at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana.

Samuel Tetteh speaking about how he has been using the CSD at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana


Over the course of the meeting we attended many more interesting lectures and had an exhibition stand. At the stand we helped attendees install an evaluation version of CSD-Enterprise on their laptops and computers and saw first-hand some of the challenges faced in Africa. We are now looking forward to receiving many new applications for the FAIRE programme, reading new publications from African crystallographers on their research using the CSD and seeing new structures from Africa being added to the database. Who knows, maybe the millionth structure will be from the PCCr community too!

Patrice Kenfack and Gift Mehlena with Suzanna Ward and Amy Sarjeant at the CCDC stand during the PCCr2 meeting


We have learnt a lot from our adventures in Africa: they have inspired us to establish the FAIRE programme, they have made us reflect on what more we can do to help users access the CSD where internet connectivity might be an issue, they have allowed us to meet many amazing scientists and crystallographers and they have given us hope for the future.

We would love to hear your stories about how you use the CSD in your institutions in Africa or about some of your new publications, so please keep us updated on Twitter LinkedIn or Facebook. Together, we can try to make structural data more accessible worldwide and see depositions from many more African countries!

Of course, at the CCDC our attention isn’t just on Africa, we try to ensure that we are supporting scientists and crystallographers globally. If you want to find out more about our worldwide events then check out our Events Calendar, sign up to our regular news emails or follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/oct/26/africa-produces-just-11-of-global-scientific-knowledge
[2] https://www.ccdc.cam.ac.uk/Community/blog/post-60/
[3] https://www.ccdc.cam.ac.uk/Community/blog/post-9/
[4] https://www.crystallography.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/BCA-News-September-2016.pdf
[5] https://www.crystallography.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/BCA-News-March-2017.pdf