Calling all budding African scientists for the Google Science Fair

Interest, passion, creativity, commitment, curiosity and above all love for science starts at a young age. The best and brightest inventors started at an early age. None of the Science Heroes on the Google Science Fair page are black. Its time to change that…Africa has young talented, innovative people -esteemed African scientists include Phillip Emeagwali who performed the world’s fastest computational records, Gebisa Ejeta winner of a World Food Prize and Tebello Nyokong a female South African nanotechnologist. There is also a budding generation of innovators, William Kamkwamba who harnessed the wind, Mubarak Muhammed Abdullahi building working helicopters from car parts, Juliana Rotich co-founder of Ushahidi and Victor Kawagga a robotics enthusiast.

Google Science Fair is looking for the next generation of scientists and engineers to change the world. Last year a group from Swaziland were among 15 finalists. Their project on hydroponics for poor subsistence farmers also won the Science in Action prize.

This is our time to shine….find out more at Google Science Fair.

Four incredible African women scientists honoured in Paris

African women scientists…its not often that you hear those three words together and to add to that “award”. It makes me so damn proud that the achievements of four remarkable women are being recognized internationally by the UNESCO-L’Oreal For Women in Science (FWIS). Johannie Spaan from South Africa, Peggoty Mutai from Kenya and Gladys Kahaka from Namibia are the three successful African candidates who will be awarded fellowships in 2012 and most notably South African Professor Jill Farrant, has been selected as one of only five laureates worldwide to receive the prestigious 2012 L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science Award.

This is what this blog, African Science Heroes, is all about identifying and recognizing the amazing accomplishments of African scientists. African Science Heroine Dr. Tebello Nyokong (Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnogy at Rhodes University, South Africa) is also a UNESCO-L’Oreal For Women in Science Laureate 2009.

jill farrant

Professor Jill Farrant, 2012 UNESCO-L'OREAL For Women in Science For Africa and the Arab States Laureate


The FWIS International Fellowship programme aims to identify and reward deserving, committed and talented young women scientists from across the world who are active in the field of life sciences. Each fellow receives US$40 000 to put towards their research and Professor Farrant, US$100 000 for her achievements.

Jill Farrant is a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is the world’s leading expert on resurrection plants. Plants which ‘come back to life’ from a desiccated, seemingly dead state when they are rehydrated. Professor Farrant is investigating the ability of many species of these plants to survive without water for long periods of time from a number of scientific angles –  molecular, biochemical and structural. The ultimate goal is to find applications that will lead to the development of drought-tolerant crops to nourish populations in arid, drought-prone climates.  Her research may also have medicinal applications.

The FWIS International Fellows nomination criteria are that the candidate must be in their doctoral or postdoctoral year; working in the field of life sciences; researching a promising project that will contribute to society; and have been accepted to a tertiary institution outside their home country.

Peggoty Mutai

Peggoty Mutai of Kenya, 2012 UNESCO-L'OREAL International Fellow

Peggoty Mutai is completing her PhD in Medicinal Chemistry. While her home universities are the University of Nairobi in Kenya and the University of Cape Town, she has been accepted to Canada’s McGill University to continue her research into finding new treatments for the parasitic worms that plague people in developing countries.

Johannie Spaan is a PhD student studying Zoology/Ecology at the University of Pretoria. Her research focuses on the impact of treating parasitic worm infestations in African buffalo, and has broad-ranging implications for human health. She has been accepted to the College of Veterinary Medicine, Oregon State University, and the University of Georgia in the USA to finish her research.

Johannie Maria Spaan

Johannie Spaan of South Africa , 2012 UNESCO-L'OREAL International Fellow

Gladys Kahaka is doing her PhD in Plant Sciences through the University of Namibia. Her research is centred around preserving Namibia’s rich

Gladys Kahaka of Namibia, 2012 UNESCO-L'OREAL International Fellow

biological resources, which she will further at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom where she has been accepted to complete her studies.

Their research areas are all varied but their results all have significant bearing on society from preserving the diversity of plant species in Namibia to treating parasitic worms. This is all thanks to L’Oreal, a company who most of us associate with “Because I am worth it!”.  A company that  profits from the surface beauty of  the cosmetic industry but also recognizes women’s internal beautiful intelligence.

Science Centre World Congress declaration needs strong action verbs!

To declare is a strong action in itself. You declare war, love, independence, citizenship….so why water down such a powerful sentiment with words like “encourage, support, promote and strive……” Check out the 6th Science Centre World Congress (6SCWC) Cape Town Declaration.

The congress was held in Cape Town from the 4th to 8th Sept, 2011. I was there eager to furiously take notes, network like crazy, provoke arguments in sessions, devour not just lunch and refreshments but academic content – why? – because the theme was so close to my heart (and my PhD topic) “Science across cultures”.

But sadly I left disappointed, my academic appetite unsatiated but my body 3kgs heavier and exhausted from great food and fantastic entertainment during the social program. Was I wrong in thinking that the conference would highlight, showcase, feature what science centres around the world do to promote the harmony between scientific, cultural and or Indigenous knowledges through their exhibitions, outreach, ethical standards, stories, evaluations etc… Two science centres out of all the (number undisclosed) science centres at the conference spoke to the topic. Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and Imiloa. You can read their presentations here (OMSI) and here (Imiloa).

It was clear to me that science and culture are dichotomous. Almost like science belongs in science centres and culture in museums. And it was clear from some delegates that should remain the status quo….but refusing to recognise cultural or Indigenous knowledge in scientific circles denigrates and belittles ancient wisdoms without which we would not be here today or even tomorrow! I could rabbit on about this for days but I shall leave those arguments for my PhD thesis and return to the conference declaration.

Prior to the conference, there were workshops. These workshops were aimed at supporting the development of science centres particularly in Africa. Of the 2,500 or so science centres around the world according to Jean-Pierre Ezin, Commissioner of Human Resources, Science and Technology in the African Union, only 32 are in Africa most of those in South Africa.

Prof. Ezin spoke strongly about the importance of “the popularization and public understanding of science” through a broad range of activities that include the creation of science centres. Such efforts, he concluded, “would benefit both science and society.”

This leads me to question the strength of the statement in the declaration

“Encourage the establishment of science centres and museums in parts of the world where they are lacking.”

Encourage is a weak verb, it can be interpreted in any form or fashion. The science centre networks that endorsed the document may not have the authority or mandate to enforce any action but in what way can I use this hollow statement to further our plans in Malawi to set up a science centre?

Malawian innovator, Fred Msiska, is going to Italy!

Remember Fred Msiska – the Malawian innovator….well, I have some fantastic news for you! Thanks to the wonderful viral power of the internet in spreading the word, Fred’s story through France 24 news channel got picked up by an Italian newspaper and then an Italian organization and now he is off to Italy in two weeks.

Two months ago a team from Terra Madre came to visit him and invited him to participate in Terra Madre 2010 taking place in Turin, Italy. Terra Madre, the Food Communities Network, is a project of Slow Food, it “brings together those players in the food chain who together support sustainable agriculture, fishing, and breeding with the goal of preserving taste and biodiversity”.

I was with Fred two weeks ago and this is what he had to say about what people in his village originally thought about his inventions and his feelings on going to Italy. (apologies for the video quality, I used my Mom’s digital camera).

“In the beginning, the people [in Nchenanchena Village] would say you are crazy. You are making these useless things that wont help you at this time. You are just wasting time.  We are farming tobacco and developing faster but you are following agriculture projects and toys that have no use.  But now, we realise, we were wrong in thinking that you were the stupid one, now we know it is us who is stupid and you are the smart one.  This is what people in Nchenachena Extension Planning Area are saying.”

“I am very happy to be going to Italy because in Italy, we will meet people from all over the world and share knowledge and experience on improving our countries. I will give my friends knowledge that will help improve all our countries as well as how to make Malawi better, because of this I am very happy.  To add to this, it will very very much expand the knowledge and creativity that I already have so that when I come back to Malawi, I can teach everyone in Malawi the skills and things that I learn.”


Fred Msiska

Fred watching for the first time, the short film about his innovations.


The Royal African Science Prize

30th March, 2010

The audience falls deathly silent in the flamboyantly adorned grand hall where scientists from across Africa have congregated to hear the announcement. Meanwhile, in distant homelands people crowd around televisions and radios, waiting with baited breath.

“This year’s Royal African Science Prize is awarded for scientific achievement that has dramatically improved the health of millions of people not only in Africa but across the world. Their steadfast commitment to overcoming any and all challenges and their unwavering determination led them to a discovery that has transformed the lives of millions.” And they will rise proudly to thundering applause, bursting with pride to have received the highest scientific accolade and to be recognized by their people for their contribution.

It may seem fictitious now, but it is my hope in time that this will be a reality….read more at BMJ Blog

Necessity is the mother of innovation

22nd March, 2010

Nested in the luxurious Henga Valley of Northern Malawi is a remote village so beautiful they called it twice, Nchenachena. Blessed with rich soil and a flowing river, most of its inhabitants eek a meagre living from the land. Modern technology is slowly coming to this rural populace, hot pink and luminous green logos of Zain and TNM painted across shanty shops make a sharp contrast to the lush vegetation and thatched huts. In these shops, locals come to recharge their Chinese made cellphones because ESCOM’s rural electrification program only benefitted the very few who could afford.  Not to be hard done by this, a farmer took matters into his own hands and developed a biogas toilet that provides electricity to his office, charges his phone and operates his homemade fan.

Waiting by his smart red brick house in a tidy swept compound, I watched him approach from a distance. Barefoot with a hoe hanging over his shoulder, his  sturdy stature speaks years tilling the land. His hair is shaggy from a morning out in the field, his polite posture and wide smile of jotting and absent teeth welcomes us.

Mr. Frederick Msiska, Malawian science innovator

Mr. Frederick Msiska dropped out of school in Grade 5 when his family could not afford his school fees. His lack of formal science education  has not stopped him from building a biogas toilet,  a mobile phone charger,  a fan,  or a  handheld chemical sprayer. When asked what motivated him, he says “I looked around and I found that certain things were missing in my life so I studied very closely things that the government supplies. I made them myself through trial and error. I just kept trying, trying, and trying until they eventually worked.”

And worked it did. Frederick is a science hero, an innovator who used as much as possible local materials to produce a handheld chemical sprayer, a biogas toilet that lights his office, charges his mobile phone and operates a fan. His biogas toilet amongst other things uses a branch from the mululuzga tree, half a spoon of tea, maize bran, and an empty box of chibuku! (If anyone knows the English translation of a mululuzga tree – please let me know it apparently produces acid).

Standing by his biogas toilet

Handheld chemical sprayer (battery operated)

Mr. Msiska is also a lead farmer, appointed by government, he trains people in the area on good farming practice. His office is a smart small thatched building detached from his main house. Inside his tidy office is a rickety table covered with tatty exercise books and a well used bible.  Carefully packed away in the corner are the remains of his past invention attempts. The walls are plastered with large posters listing the names of local farm clubs and information about seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer but at the bottom of one poster something catches my eye

Poster on the wall, Zinchito Mu 2008 (Work in 2008) “Kuzenga office (Build office) Kupanga Luso ( Make things with my skills) Kupanga Sipuleya (Make a sprayer) Kupanga fani (Make a fan) Kupanga magetsi (Make electricity) Bio-gas light”

He proudly shows off his inventions, delighted to have an interested audience to demonstrate his creations. Our conversation was not only jovial, it saddened me when he said “ Farmers do not contribute to national development, it is only those who are educated who contribute to development.” I was dumb struck and short of words in my limited Tumbuka to say, although education is important,  even without it, you are still a valuable member of society and can still make a significant difference to your family, your community and the country.  I was even more distraught when he told how he had dismantled his biogas toilet for fear of imprisonment. He had heard of young boy, a grade 7 drop out, in the south of the country who had from scrap materials set up a community radio station and was later arrested. What Frederick had failed to understand was that this boy was arrested for operating a radio station without a license. The boy, Gabriel Kondesi,  was eventually released and it was not long before the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) recognized the brilliance of this young boy and awarded him a license. (….few weeks later the Director of MACRA was suspiciously reassigned – reasons for this are unknown). Gabriel Kondesi is another perfect example of a science hero, someone who overcame the odds, and made a scientific contribution that impacted positively on the lives of his community. His radio station used an old cassette player, a simple Nokia cellphone, capacitors, two aerials and transistors.

Gabriel Kondesi became a household name in Malawi so much so that when I was in Malawi and I randomly asked people in town to name a scientist they had heard of, they often mentioned his name. The innovation of Frederick Msiska, Gabriel Kondesi  and William Kamkwamba (the Malawian boy who built a windmill) are to be recognized, promoted and supported – locally, nationally and regionally. Although how best to support these talents is open for discussion.

They are testament to the saying “necessity is the mother of innovation” and I will add invention! In a contest on creativity and innovation, pitting the urban populace vs. the rural inhabitants in Africa, my experience so far suggests that the rural population would win hands down…by a long mile… And a majority of the African scientists that I interviewed echoed similar statements, that a rural and or a less privileged environment compels people to be more resourceful.  In town, if you need something, you save up and then buy it, out there in the countryside when you need something you make it yourself. Now if only we could support and harness this creative resourcefulness, steadfast determination, and imaginative innovation in a meaningful way that can make the lives of even just a few more people in Africa that much better. And by this I don’t mean a massive large scale project but something that will encourage, sustain and support such innovation to benefit communities.