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.

Enhancing Collaboration and Quality in Postgraduate Training: Joint Module Training Delivery in RUFORUM Regional Programmes

In its efforts to strengthen the quality of post graduate training programmes and partnerships, RUFORUM and the member universities are using a combination of innovative approaches in the curriculum design and delivery of the regional postgraduate training programmes. A case is the RUFORUM multidisciplinary PhD programme in Agriculture Rural Innovation (ARI) which is hosted simultaneously by three RUFORUM member universities (Makerere University- Uganda, Egerton University – Kenya and Sokoine University of Agriculture – Tanzania) using same curriculum and content. The PhD ARI Program is implemented in collaboration with three other European universities namely Montpellier Sup Agro in France, Wagenigen University in the Netherlands and University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

With financial support from Carnegie Cooperation of New York, RUFORUM supported the joint implementation of field based module on Participatory Methods and Action Research for innovation in livelihoods and agricultural systems offered under the  PhD Agricultural and Rural Innovations (ARI). This module is unique in delivery as it brings together students from the three universities in Africa and three universities in Europe to a Common facility.  This year’s field training took place in Rakai District in Uganda. A total of 18 students and five academic staff from the consortium spent two weeks in the field to learn together with farming communities. The students were from Africa (DRC, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda); Europe (France and Spain); and Latin America (Guatemala). Female participants represented 31.6%. The diversity of students and staff was a learning resource that enabled substantial cross learning and complementarity of skills.

Above: PhD students in Rakai Working with Communities

Above: PhD students in Rakai Working with Communities

The joint module provides valuable insights on how scientists could engage with communities to undertake research for development. This gives opportunities to students to rethink and nest their research into development challenges of communities as well as apply some of the tools learnt in their own research.

Below there is an anecdotal testimony from one of the students of the field module: “The course offers a different approach to research diversity such as agro-ecological zonation, farm strategy model, and innovation histories as an alternative to statistical representativeness. The most exciting are the hands-on tools and combined approaches such as the use of GPS, GIS, Innovation Histories and Trends which we used to comprehensively understand the communities and their livelihood dynamics. At the end of the course we had an exciting feedback session to provide insights on possible innovative solutions for improving livelihood of these communities. It was good to note the keen interest of the NGOs and policy makers working in the area to take on the suggestions and implement them. I also appreciated an opportunity for co-learning, experience sharing, and team work with fellow classmates from various countries and cultures”.  Mrs. Dorcas Loga Okello

A number of spillover effects have emerged for this arrangement which include; opportunities for joint supervisor of the students by European and African staff hence sustaining partnerships, cross cultural learning, assured consistent quality of the ARI brand (student) across the participating universities. Click here to read more.

RUFORUM student wins award during the NARO-MAK Conference, 2016

Above: Boris Alladassi receiving his award as Dr. Imeda (center) look on Prof. Bashasa (Right)

Above: Boris Alladassi receiving his award as Dr. Imeda (center) look on Prof. Bashasa (Right)

Boris M. Alladassi a RUFORUM sponsored student from Benin emerged among the three overall winners in the category of Poster presentation. His research presentation focused on “Screening common bean germplasm for leaf and pod resistance to common bacteria blight in Uganda”. RUFORUM supported eighteen international students to participate in the conference as part of research dissemination, mentorship and networking.

The participating students expressed the benefits of the  NARO-MAK Conference  as echoed by Mr. Emmanuel Kodwo Mensah that “this opportunity has allowed me to form new networks for collaboration with other persons and institutions across Africa and beyond”. Emmanuel’s participation and that of other international students increased the inter-cultural diversity of the NARO-MAK Conference, 2016.

Above: Mensah Emmanuel during his presentation at the NAROMAK conference, 2016

Above: Mensah Emmanuel during his presentation at the NAROMAK conference, 2016

The Conference attracted close to 400 participants and was organized by the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) and Makerere University under the theme “Agricultural Research and Innovation for Socio-Economic Transformation”.

The conference was opened by Hon. Vincent Ssempijja Bamulangak, Cabinet Minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry & Fisheries. Dr. Ambrose Agona the Director General, NARO reaffirmed the need for cutting edge research and called on the Government of Uganda to take up the conference resolutions for implementation to ensure transformation and realization of the vision2040 for Uganda. The Conference was held at the Munyonyo Common Commonwealth Resort Hotel in Uganda.

Testimony of career opportunities for young scholars in agricultural sciences

By Lijalem Gebrewahid, PhD Student at Mekelle University

lijalemI was born and raised in Shire-Endaslassie, a town in the  Tigrai Region of Northern Ethiopia. My love for agriculture must have been borne out of my experience of growing and caring for plants in the backyard of our home during my childhood. After completing high school, I went on to study a Diploma in Plant Sciences at Jimma University, Ethiopia. Thereafter, I served as a Research Assistant at the Tigrai Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) for three years before joining

Mekelle University in 2004 in the same position. Being a staff at the university accorded me the opportunity to advance in my career and, in 2009, I successfully completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Horticulture from Mekelle University.

The next year, I got a scholarship from the Regional Universities Forum lijalem1for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) to enroll for a Master of Science degree in Plant Breeding and Seed Systems at Makerere University in Uganda. I was delighted to be admitted at Makerere University because it is one of the top ranked universities in Africa. During the course of my masters training and research, I met great people and made lasting friendships with professional peers.  Initially, I had anticipated a great challenge in completing the course, but the load become easier with institutional support as well as support from my peers and supervisors. By the time of completion, the program was less intense than I had earlier anticipated.

I was glad to have the opportunity to undertake the research component of my MSc back in my home country. This accorded me more time with my family as well as the faculty staff at Mekelle University who served as co-supervisors with the team at Makerere University. The exposure to studying outside my home country as well as joint supervision by both faculty at Makerere University and Mekelle University made me appreciate my journey from a diploma certificate to a postgraduate degree. My MSc thesis focused on evaluation of certain barley core collections for stability in terms of earliness, scald disease resistance, and yield performance  in central and northern part of Ethiopia. The study demonstrated that genotypes by environment interactions can be minimized through selection of widely adapted genotypes. This is important for plant breeding programmes focusing on barley and other related crops.

The training exposure at Makerere University energized me to look for opportunities for further studies. Fortunately, I was lucky to merit another RUFORUM scholarship, this time under the Community Action Research Program (CARP), to study for a PhD in Plant Breeding and Seed Systems at Mekelle University.

lijalem2Currently, I am part of a research team working on the RUFORUM-funded project “Enhancing wheat value chain through participatory action research in Northern Ethiopia” Project (RU 2014 CARP 05) of which my PhD research is a component. Led by the Principal Investigator, Assoc. Prof. Dereje Abera Assefa, the research team is focusing on improving yield and yield stability of superior quality wheat, particularly under stress and future climate change conditions. Our overall target is to minimize dependence on local and obsolete varieties through use of improved high yielding varieties to enhance production and productivity of wheat in turbulent environments.

Involvement of farmers in evaluation and selection of wheat varieties helps researchers to have deeper understanding about the existing situations and vice versa. As a result, the right measures can be can be taken to tackle challenges in a relatively shorter time. This participatory approach has enhanced the university’s engagement with the community and promoted ownership of the research agenda by farmers. The team firmly believes that this approach, among other factors, will also facilitate the transfer of knowledge and technologies to other farmers along the wheat value chain.

So far, data for one season has been collected and analyzed, a Farmers Day has been organized, and stakeholders from various sectors including model farmers, Bureau of Agriculture, Tigrai Agricultural Research Institute, researchers from Mekelle University, factory representatives and administrative people have observed the trial sites.

lijalem3lijalem4During the Field Day, a farmers’ research group from Atsela, one of the research sites, welcomed participants, by holding up the motto “From bread in GTP1 to pasta in GTP2”. This was an expression of their wish to have a good life during the Second Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP2) set by the government and perhaps also a reminder to us, the research team, of the impact that we are trying to achieve. I look forward to completing my PhD which will no doubt equip me to make more significant contributions to crop improvement for food security in Africa and perhaps help bring to reality the aspirations of our farmers.

I am greatly indebted to RUFORUM for the financial support for my MSc and PhD studies. I have attained knowledge in plant breeding that is very relevant to my country and I see opportunities to put this knowledge into use for the benefit of smallholder households and farming systems in general.  I would also like to take this opportunity to appreciate my mentors, particularly Professor Paul Gibson, undoubtedly one of Makerere University’s most valuable assets. As an MSc student in his class, I was not only impressed by his expert knowledge, but also by his profound teaching style and readiness to help students even outside class hours.

The RUFORUM Network promotes inter-university collaboration to facilitate quality graduate research and training. This testimony, one among many others, presents evidence of collaboration between members of the Network (Makerere University and Mekelle University) to co-supervise and train proactive graduate students.

Contact the author by email at: lijalemgebrewahid@gmail.com

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