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