Background: Many African countries are investing in medical education to address significant health care workforce shortages and ultimately improve health care. Increasingly, training institutions are establishing medical education departments as part of this investment. This article describes the status of four such departments at sub-Saharan African medical schools supported by the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI). This article will provide information about the role of these institutional structures in fostering the development of medical education within the African context and highlight factors that enable or constrain their establishment and sustainability. Methods: In-depth interviews were conducted with the heads or directors of the four medical education departments using a structured interview protocol developed by the study group. An inductive approach to analysis of the interview transcripts was adopted as the texts were subjected to thematic content analysis. Results: Medical education departments, also known as units or centers, were established for a range of reasons including: to support curriculum review, to provide faculty development in Health Professions Education, and to improve scholarship in learning and teaching. The reporting structures of these departments differ in terms of composition and staff numbers. Though the functions of departments do vary, all focus on improving the quality of health professions education. External and internal funding, where available, as well as educational innovations were key enablers for these departments. Challenges included establishing and maintaining the legitimacy of the department, staffing the departments with qualified individuals, and navigating dependence on external funding. All departments seek to expand the scope of their services by offering higher degrees in HPE, providing assistance to other universities in this domain, and developing and maintaining a medical education research agenda. Conclusions: The establishment of medical education departments in Sub-Saharan Africa is a strategy medical schools can employ to improve the quality of health professions education. The creation of communities of practice such as has been done by the MEPI project is a good way to expand the network of medical education departments in the region enabling the sharing of lessons learned across the continent.