A mathematician’s passion for simplifying science to catalyse innovation


Savannah (1st from left), runner up during Famelab science communication competition in South Africa

My name is Savannah Nuwagaba, a PhD Student at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Throughout my university education, I have majored in Mathematics where expression is mainly through equations and calculus; not words, and certainly not stories. I did not understand the power of storytelling until I went to South Africa, a country whose stories have shaped communities.

I first went to South Africa to pursue a Postgraduate Diploma in Mathematical Sciences at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS).  In our intake year, we were 54 students from 34 African countries and had lecturers from all over the globe. I was particularly fascinated by our lecturers from Cambridge University who did not just teach us about what other people had done, said or thought, but made sure we were actively engaged in learning. Thanks to them, I came to greatly appreciate the importance of scientific evidence. Several pan African speakers also visited us from time to time while I was at AIMS and through them I realised that with knowledge, we can create the Africa we want to see.

After my completing my diploma at AIMS, i enrolled at Stellenbosch University for a Master’s degree in Biomathematics and stayed on for my PhD. During my early years at the university, I began to question how a mathematician like me could contribute to creating the Africa I want to see. The answer came in 2014 when I was invited to give a TEDx talk under the theme ‘Alone in a crowd’. TEDx talk is a platform for speakers to present great ideas in less than 18 minutes. I used the platform to share my life story and realised that my experiences enlightened both the audience and I. Listening to the enthusiastic feedback from parents and young girls who attended, I purposed not to stop telling stories. I had finally figured out how to make a contribution to my continent.

It was not long before another storytelling opportunity came along. I was nominated to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting in Germany, the only meeting I know where you can find more than 30 Nobel Laureates from science fields. Listening to the laureate’s stories of why they had opted for careers in science, the ups and downs in their careers and how all these contributed to their ground breaking discoveries, I felt a strong sense of responsibility to share my own science stories with the public in a way they can easily understand. After all, a considerable amount of research funding comes from tax payers’ money.

Although I had previously participated in events where we had to share our science stories with non-specialist audiences, my experience in Lindau created a particular yearning to build my skills in public engagement with science. When I returned to South Africa, I attended as many trainings as my time and resources could allow.

One experience I will never forget was with Famelab, a science communication competition where a scientist is given three minutes to present a scientific idea to a diverse audience in a clear and charismatic way without compromising the scientific content. Through the training we received for the competition, by trainers from both South Africa and the UK, I learnt that we cannot achieve evidence-based policy making unless scientists are able to clearly communicate their evidence in a language that policy makers understand.

For the competition, I explained how evidence from a mathematical model suggested that the way we humans interact with our environment and its resultant effect on the temperature of the earth could determine whether our grandchildren will see some of the animals that we see today or only smaller versions of them, if at all. The first question I received from the audience was “How do you plan to disseminate this piece of evidence to different communities given that every human being contributes to how our environment reacts to our relationship with it?” I did not have a clear answer, but since we had a meeting with the Academy of Sciences of South Africa and the Department of Science and Technology the following week I responded that we could include discussions on how to accelerate the appreciation of science in Africa. Deep down, though, I knew it had to go beyond that.

Why do I share this story?

We often talk about creating people-centred innovative solutions and know that innovation springs from science whether formally or informally yet we still ask, “What can we do about it?” I believe that if scientists in Africa shared their evidence-based stories in ways that can be understood by all stakeholders including rural communities, policy and decision makers, we can create the Africa that we have always wanted to see. Knowledge is power! I therefore call upon graduate students of Africa, from  all scientific disciplines, to build their skills in translating scientific concepts for public consumption and join me in sharing our science for the betterment of the continent.

Savannah Nuwagaba graduated from Makerere University with a Bachelor of Science with Education, Mathematics and Chemistry (majoring in mathematics); completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Mathematical Sciences at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences https://www.aims.ac.za/   and has majored in Biomathematics for her Master’s and PhD training. She can be reached at savannah@sun.ac.za or savannah@aims.ac.za.

Vacancy: Project Manager Research Management

Deadline by 17:00 on Friday, 26 August 2016.

SARIMA is an association of Research and Innovation Managers that operates at an institutional, national and international level, as well as across the value chain. The purpose of the association is to promote research and innovation management for the benefit of southern Africa. Research Management (RM) is a key strategic focus area for SARIMA and numerous activities and projects undertaken by the Research Management portfolio, in co-ordination with the Innovation and Technology Transfer and Africa Engagement portfolios.

SARIMA requires the services of a part-time Project Manager to co-ordinate, facilitate and implement activities and projects for the Research Management Portfolio.

Job Scope:

The Project Manager’s duties will include:

  • Wide consultation and liaison at national level with stakeholders and organisations
  • Liaison with international partners and stakeholders on RM initiatives
  • Planning and implementation of RM Portfolio activities
  • Drawing up of documentation (e.g. concept notes, guidelines, toolkits, etc.) as part of deliverables on the RM Portfolio’s projects
  • Driving the implementation of, and monitoring outcomes from, professional development and networking initiatives of the RM Portfolio, including facilitation and development of training material
  • Identification and initiation of new projects in support of the RM Portfolio’s strategic plans
  • Project management, management of budgets and liaison with funders
  • Drafting funding related applications and proposals (inclusive of budget preparation)
  • Development of reports to funders or other stakeholders on projects and initiatives, in consultation with the RM I&TT Portfolio members
  • Facilitation of workshops, courses, etc., making presentations for promotion and/or training purposes.
  • Updating of the RM section of the SARIMA website
  • Development of information resources on RM
  • Promoting the RM Portfolio activities of members through newsletters, social media, etc.
  • Providing professional support to the SARMA Committee and the RM Portfolio

These functions need to be performed in close conjunction with especially the Vice-President RM, as well as the broader SARIMA Committee and SARIMA staff. The Project Manager may not serve SARIMA in any other capacity (such as a member of the Committee).

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Apply Now: Young African Entrepreneurs Competition


Deadline for submissions is 30th July, 2016

The Young African entrepreneurs deserve every opportunity to be supported to succeed in their business ventures; they also deserve the opportunity to be heard, exposed and supported to increase their social capital and network horizon. RUFORUM invites young (<40 years) African entrepreneurs and incubatees, to compete for 10 conference awards to show case their innovations, enterprises and business concepts and propositions. The focus is for the young entrepreneurs to share their story at an International stage with close to 700 participants drawn from academia, business and industry, development organisations, practitioners and philanthropists.  It is hoped that through this competition, young entrepreneurs’ business concepts, impact, innovation and business opportunities can be expanded. While the focus of this competition is on innovation in agribusiness, other innovations, incubations, business enterprises and business concepts along ICTs, health, engineering, natural resources, meteorology,  urbanization, green economy, and transport and communication, among other areas, will be considered.

The ten (10) competitively selected business enterprises will receive all expenses paid trip (air ticket, conference registration, and hotel costs) for participation at the RUFORUM Biennial Conference (17th -21st October, 2016) in Cape Town, South Africa. The selected young innovators will also receive a competition cash price award.

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Best 15 African universities in 2016

Copyright: Betty Press/Panos

Copyright: Betty Press/Panos

By Samuel Hinneh

Speed read

  • Out of 800 top universities worldwide, only 15 in Africa make the cut
  • The universities were rated based on indicators such as research and innovation
  • Experts say that partnerships are key to being among the best being best
  • Five of the 15 top most ranked are members of the RUFORUM Network

[ACCRA] Only 15 universities in Africa have been ranked among the top 800 in the world.

The results by the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings were published last month (21 April) and presented at THE 2nd Africa Universities Summit at the University of Ghana, Accra, a week later (27-29 April).

South African universities dominated the top rankings, taking six positions, with only Uganda’s Makerere University the only institution outside South Africa to make the top five in fourth place. The University of Ghana and Kenya-based University of Nairobi are ranked in seventh and eight places, respectively.


According to UK-based Times Higher Education, the rankings resulted from use of indicators such as research in terms of volume, income and reputation; reputation for research excellence; citations and the role in knowledge transfer through measuring the ability to help industry with innovations, inventions and consultancies.

“One of the ways around it involves forming partnerships, which allow graduate students to use equipment and teaching facilities of other universities” Naa A. Adamafio, University of Ghana

Researchers also measured international outlook such as the universities’ ability to attract international students and faculty. Researchers calculated the proportion of a university’s total research journal publications with at least one international co-author and reward higher volumes.

Learning environment and the perceived prestige of institutions in teaching also formed part of the ratings.

THE randomly selected 10,323 scholars from 133 countries who have published at least a paper within the Elsevier Scopus database and asked them to identify 15 top universities based on their disciplines. The survey was conducted between January 2016 and March 2016. Researchers also obtained data on performance indicators from universities and analysed them.

Figure 1: Reputation calculation, based on the 2016 World University Rankings
Click here to expand

Kenneth King, emeritus professor at the University of Edinburg in the United Kingdom, says that African universities have to form collaborations with other universities to spur innovations to tackle problems in health, agriculture and transportation.

Phil Baty, editor of the World University Rankings, says Africa’s human capital can be fully developed as its most precious resource through sustained investment in higher education, science, technology, research and innovation.

The ranking emphasises the crucial importance of a world-class infrastructure for learning and research, he adds.

Baty tells SciDev.Net. “The vision of Africa’s development priorities talks about ensuring that the continent is an influential global player and partner with well-educated and skilled citizens, underpinned by science, technology and innovation for a knowledge society.

Naa A. Adamafio, dean of international programmes at the University of Ghana, explains that it is very expensive for African universities to run programmes in science and technology, because it requires equipment, chemicals and upgrade of new models to aid teaching.

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“One of the ways around it involves forming partnerships, which allow graduate students to use equipment and teaching facilities of other universities when such facilities are not available to some universities in Africa,” she tells SciDev.Net.

Research in Africa requires more investment and stronger commitment from governments to fund university research to help achieve the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which aims to drive the African economy and realise an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, Baty adds.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.