Q&A with Prof Cheikh Mbow, the newly appointed director of Future Africa

Posted on September 27, 2019

Professor Cheikh Mbow was appointed Director of Future Africa at the University of Pretoria as of September 1, 2019. Until this appointment, Prof Mbow had been leading START International-Inc (2016-2019), a US-based think tank working on research and capacity building in developing countries, mostly in Africa and Asia. Before joining START, Prof Mbow was a Senior Scientist on climate change and agroforestry (2011-2016) at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi, Kenya. Prior to that, he was Professor at the Institute of Environmental Sciences at University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar, Senegal. Prof Mbow is Future Africa’s inaugural Director, taking over from Professor Bernard Slippers who had run the Institute since its opening in March 2019.

With Prof Mbow having been in his position for almost a month, Masego Panyane (MP) caught up with Professor Mbow (CM) to find out just a little more about the man behind the title, and afford him the opportunity to share his vision for Future Africa.

Professor Cheikh Mbow

Masego Panyane: Please tell us a little more about who you are, where you’re from and what inspired your journey into academia.

Prof Cheikh Mbow: I am a Senegal national, I grew up in a small town called Louga in the middle of the Sahel and I worked successively for the University of Dakar-Senegal, the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) in Nairobi as Senior Scientist and moved to the START-International secretariat in Washington-DC. Over 22 years, I have contributed to many international programmes such as the Global Land Programme, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, the Global Observation of Forest Cover, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and Future Earth. I always filled these positions with a due diligence for outcomes and firm science leadership resulting in innovative approaches that matters for Africa.

During my career I was in contact with high-profile scientists, who headed advanced laboratories or research groups. Of course, the space you mingle around should have an influence on your life aspirations. But I must say, rather than a set of choices, this career has been a push of providence as I almost all the time worked with great people, from University Cheikh Anta Diop to ICRAF and from ICRAF to START. When you work with clever people, obsessed by results with a profound sense of humanity, and when the purpose of your life is aligned with your work, that becomes a source of incredible meaning and a safe way to achieve one’s objectives.

MP: What attracted you to Future Africa? Why did you accept the role of director? 

CM: I am attracted to Future Africa by its ambitious and powerful mission. The task of preparing Africa for the future means so much for the way we develop and deliver science today. The subsequent probe is how to use smart people and talents – mostly the young and early career scientists and practitioners – to address hot, sustainability issues. Future Africa is also about linking science with society by pairing knowledge systems with learning systems and establishing a creative process of engagement. The focus on impact is really appealing as it translates to a real change on people’s lives. Finally, I see Future Africa as a place to change the rhetoric about the continent. Africa is mentioned often by others in terms of desperation, but we all know that there are much more positive aspects than negative ones.

MP: What are your research interests?  

CM: My research interest is on ecosystem resilience. I gradually worked on disturbances of forest resources such a deforestation, bush fires, to human use of natural products. Then I worked on the natural forest’s response to climate change, including the potential for carbon sequestration. Lately, I work a lot on land productivity through agroforestry systems, challenges for food security, the holistic approach of food systems and its implication to climate change and land degradation. These aspects are central to human risks and my research focuses on alleviation measures and local solutions for addressing land degradation and climate change.

MP: How do you believe your work at START International can be continued and linked to the work that you will be doing at Future Africa? 

CM: START works on a multilevel capacity development approach to engage with early career, communities and development agencies. As such, the primary goal is to establish strong knowledge networks. To be using that experience to develop partnership will be amazingly satisfying particularly if Future Africa can mobilise the actors that are there to transform the continent. I also personally believe that the work of this century is to establish solid grassroots, bottom-up methods for working with vulnerable communities and to support the voices of marginalised people.

MP: Why do you believe research is important in the development of Africa as a continent? 

CM: There is no development without strong science to sustain good development practices. Every single aspect of development is knowledge intensive as it entails varied geographies and processes (multiple ecosystems and human contexts) and implies application of several methods and tools from various disciplines (social and natural sciences) to understand and act with relevant approaches by context. To me, science delivers that ‘knowledge’ that refers, to me, as a set of information from scientific observations, tools and models, but also all that local knowledge for assessing impacts, adaptations and vulnerabilities, all having implications on socio-economic dynamics. Current knowledge in Africa is rather limited in number and fragmented in content, resulting to a double caveat of significance and consistency across borders. Most aspects of knowledge production in Africa is generally influenced by external rhetoric and in a large majority the intellectual property right goes outside Africa. That needs to be changed through a reconnection of African scientists and building on the abilities we have to produce the knowledge that Africa needs. 

MP: Why are institutions like Future Africa important to society and in the community of institutions of higher education? 

CM: Future Africa is a unique model that does not fit into the traditional faculty scheme. Rather, the organisation seeks to fit into the intersection between science domains and be the market place or seedbed for integrated knowledge. In that sense, Future Africa is linking university constituencies and creating a space for active collaboration. Future Africa is also important because it will encourage a science-policy-business forum, including small and medium enterprises and local communities to reflect the various aspirations and mobilise scientists to adopt a “research-IN-development” paradigm to advance a sustainability agenda that does not disconnect from development process. The goal would be to establish Future Africa as a credible voice and a go-to resource for science, while building opportunities for development. Building from the trust of co-designing development through collaboration, Future Africa will be able to attract more funding, win partnerships to sustain the overall programme and facilitate access to resources for sustainable resource management in Africa.

MP: Under your leadership, what is your vision for Future Africa? What will your priorities be? 

CM: Where we intend to see Future Africa should drive the transformation we need. It is now recognised in sustainable development frameworks that we must deal with coupled socio-economic and socio-ecological systems of high complexity. Dealing with complex natural resource dynamics of connected issues requires breaking disciplinary boundaries to harness a much wider, holistic community that is willing to constructively work together. Current development challenges in Africa need to be addressed with new knowledge and new behaviour that facilitates the production of transdisciplinary outcomes, and enables the use of scientific results in effective and productive ways. This is all about making science infused in society to accelerate the transformation of the continent. The background of my proposed set of strategic actions will be justified by two aspects: policy challenges and funding requirements. These are the drivers and modulators of what science can do and where the efforts should be deployed.

Through this exercise we will enhance the collaboration of a wider pool of African scientists to deliver and to support current policies and strategies. That effort, where universities and research centers are the main blocks, will address capacity building processes for knowledge generation and communication on sustainability science in Africa. The strategy overall will therefore be lying on complementary strategic actions that are:

  • Building a critical mass of transdisciplinary scientists to support existing curricula and research institutions, fostering collaboration across regions and overcoming language barriers while encouraging massive production of knowledge;
  • Establishing functional networks of experts and centers that will work on products and deliver science relevant to stakeholder needs at various levels;
  • Activate a science solidarity programme that incentivises lead universities and research centers to work with less advanced ones.
- Author Masego Panyane

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