A needs assessment survey of ethics review committees (ERCs) across Africa was conducted in order to establish their major needs and areas of weaknesses in terms of ethical review capacity. The response rate was 84% (31 of 37 targeted committees), and committees surveyed were located in 18 African countries. The majority of the responding committees (61%) have been in existence between 5 and 10 years; approximately 74% of the respondents were institutional committees, with the remainder being either national (6/31) or regional (2/31). In terms of the ethical review process, nine of the 31 committees that responded did not have standard operating procedures (SOPs), and seven of the 22 that did have SOPs had never revised them after their initial development (an average period of three years). Of the 31 committees, 10 operated without any ethical guidelines. Many of the committees (13/30) met once per month, and the number of proposals reviewed annually varied, ranging from five to over 100. All respondents relied on paper-based data management and archiving systems. Overall, the survey identified the major constraints on ERCs as lack of office equipment, outdated or lack of SOPs, lack of electronic data management systems, inadequate resources, lack of or insufficient expertise on the committees, and poor recognition of the importance of the role of the committees. Consequently, the authors are addressing the identified needs and weaknesses through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded capacity building project. The impact of the intervention project will be assessed during and at the end of the four-year longitudinal project.