UP’s Future Africa Institute makes a mark on early-career research leaders in Africa with fellowship sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York

Posted on August 11, 2022

Dr Festus Adejoro is grateful for the learning opportunities he gained doing his postdoctoral fellowship at the Future Africa Istitute at the University of Pretoria (UP).

Adejoro, then a lecturer in the Department of Animal Production and Health at the Federal University Oye-Ekiti in Nigeria, was part of a select group of 12 from six countries across East, West, and Southern Africa plus the island of Mauritius, on the Early Career Research Leader Fellowship (ECRLF)

An initiative of Future Africa to develop postdoctoral researchers working across countries and disciplines to solve complex problems that face Africa and the world, it was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY).

The project ran from 2019 to 2022, with participants being involved with it for varying durations. Their disciplines included epidemiology, agriculture, African literature, population studies, plant chemistry and history.

“The vision of the Future Africa Institute in establishing the ECRLF fellowship is a very noble one and capable of transforming Africa's higher education landscape,” said  Dr Adejoro, who completed his PhD in Animal Sciences at UP in 2019. “I do hope more academics from Africa will enjoy the platform and other similar opportunities linked to the institute.

“The workshops provided a series of learning opportunities. Learning about transdisciplinary research, science communication, collaboration and leadership were key highlights for me.

“The fellowship itself gave me a platform to develop additional research skills. I was able to teach some undergraduate courses which all added to my skillset,” said Adejoro, who has recently been appointed a Teaching Associate at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

Future Africa Institute campus buildings with pond in the foreground

Future Africa Institute campus

Dr Alice Nabatanzi, a lecturer in the Department of Plant Sciences, Microbiology and Biotechnology in the College of Natural Sciences at Makerere University, Kampala, in her home country of Uganda, researched biomolecules from the sausage tree, Kigelia africana, and their potential to stop inflammation and the proliferation of cancer cells, during the fellowship.

She said her two-year stint at Future Africa was memorable because of “its transdisciplinary nature, flexibility, special trainings given to fellows, and research support for all the laboratory studies. Special thanks to the management under Professor Cheikh Mbow (the former director of Future Africa) who made all the impossibles possible”.  

Dr Carene Picot-Allain, whose second year of the fellowship in 2020 was disrupted after one month because of COVID-19, said the pandemic had “in a special way” allowed her to explore the benefits of working across disciplines she had embraced while at Future Africa in 2019.

Her research involves assessing the bioactivity, cytotoxicity, and rheological properties of pectin recovered from citrus peels. “Rethinking my research by including the dimension of transdisciplinarity has positively impacted its outcome. The assessment of the different properties of pectin, extracted from agro-industrial waste by researchers working in different realms - namely food science, biopolymer science, as well as biochemistry - has highlighted its possible application in the food, nutraceutical, and pharmaceutical sectors,” she said.

She said the fellowship helped her assert herself as a researcher. “Future Africa is the place to be for early-career researchers,” said Dr Picot-Allain, who is a Project Assistant at the Centre for Biomedical and Biomaterials Research (CBBR) at the University of Mauritius.

The programme paired fellows with mentors from UP, who were initially required to exchange knowledge by engaging with the fellows’ home countries. “COVID stymied everything,” said Rachel Fischer, a former consultant at Future Africa who stepped in as one of the programme’s project managers in March 2021  “We either couldn't fly people to South Africa, or we couldn't fly people out of South Africa to support these visits.”

The fellows were then given the opportunity and support to host an event at their home institution instead, “to contribute to local community development,” said Fischer.

An aerial view of UP's Future Africa Institute campus

The project ran from 2019 to 2022 at the Future Africa Institute, with participants being involved with it for varying durations. 

Dr Adejoro organised the Climate-smart Livestock Production in Africa Conference in Ibadan, Nigeria from 22 to 24 June 2021. Keynote speakers included his mentor and PhD supervisor Professor Abubeker Hassen, and Professor Esté Marle-Koster from UP; Dr Diego Morgavi from the National Institute of Agricultural Research in Paris; and Dr Claudia Arndt from the International Livestock Research Institute at the Mazingira Centre in Kenya.

Identifying the need for a technical workshop for the end-users of research on sustainable agricultural practices, Adejoro also organised the Scalable Animal Nutrition Methodologies Workshop on 14 and 15 March 2022, hosted by the Federal University Oye-Ekiti.

Dr Nabatanzi organised the first international conference on Reimagining the Natural Products Industry in Africa in Uganda from 5−7 July 2021 on the theme of Advancing Africa’s natural products industry through transdisciplinary and sustainable innovation. The event gave non-governmental organisations and policymakers the chance to meet and network with high-ranking officials and the top leaders from academia and industry.

Dr Picot-Allain did not host an event but was given additional funding for three months this year to finalise her research at the University of Mauritius into the anticancer activity of pectin recovered from citrus peel waste.

Future Africa hosted a two-day in-person Transdisciplinary Symposium in Pretoria in January this year. Adejoro, Nabatanzi and Picot-Allain were among nine of the ERCLF postdoctoral fellows who presented papers.

Professor Stephanie Burton of Future Africa’s management team spoke at the symposium, saying African research excellence depends on programmes such as this postdoctoral fellowship. She introduced Future Africa and the Carnegie Corporation‘s next initiative, the Future Africa Research Leader Fellowship (FAR-LeaF), which is focused on developing transdisciplinary research and leadership skills to address challenges of a post-COVID-19 society.

In the full report on the fellowship’s outcomes and research, Professor Tawana Kupe, UP’s vice-chancellor, said the University appreciated the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s support to nurture these promising early-career researchers. As UP’s vehicle to address complex challenges that face Africa and the world, he said Future Africa had “made a significant contribution to creating the next generation of research leaders that will ensure research sustainability and continuity”.

“May we continue to develop African centres of research excellence, one research leader at a time,” he said.

Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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