Sickle cell disease (SCD) has recently been recognised as a problem of major public-health significance by the World Health Organization. Despite the fact that >70% of sufferers live in Africa, expenditure on the related care and research in the continent is negligible, and most advances in the understanding and management of this condition have been based on research conducted in the North. In order to target limited resources, African countries need to focus research and interventions on areas that will lead to the maximum impact. This review details the epidemiological and clinical background of SCD, with an emphasis on Africa, before identifying the research priorities that will provide the necessary evidence base for improving the management of African patients. Malaria, bacterial and viral infections and cerebrovascular accidents are areas in which further research may lead to a significant improvement in SCD-related morbidity and mortality. As patients with high concentrations of foetal haemoglobin (HbF) appear to be protected from all but mild SCD, the various factors and pharmacological agents that might increase HbF levels need to be assessed in Africa, as options for interventions that would improve quality of life and reduce mortality.