Building the skills for doing, managing and delivering health research is essential for every country's development. Yet, human resources for health research (HRHR) are seldom considered in Africa and elsewhere. Africa's health research capacity has grown considerably, with potential to increase this growth. However, a systemic way of defining, co-ordinating and growing the HRHR needed to support health systems development is missing. Reviewing the status of HRHR in Africa, we assert that it consists of uncoordinated, small-scale activities, primarily driven from outside Africa. We present examples of ongoing HRHR capacity building initiatives in Africa. There is no overarching framework, strategy or body for African countries to optimise research support and capacity in HRHR. A simple model is presented to help countries plan and strategise for a comprehensive approach to research capacity strengthening. Everyone engaged with global, regional and national research for health enterprises must proactively address human resource planning for health research in Africa. Unless this is made explicit in global and national agendas, Africa will remain only an interested spectator in the decisions, prioritisation, funding allocations, conduct and interpretation, and in the institutional, economic and social benefits of health research, rather than owning and driving its own health research agendas.