“We need to make sure we are investing in the scientists of the future”

Spore exclusive

 

Interview with Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg

To provide the most robust research to address global warming requires investing in young scientists and providing them with the capacity and skills to lead agricultural climate researchers of the next decades. Dr Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), outlines the aims of their One Planet Fellowship initiative, and how it will be supporting young researchers under the age of 35.

The impacts of global warming are increasingly evident, particularly in developing countries, including in sub-Saharan Africa. How do you see African scientists responding to the climate crisis?

If we are going to adapt to living on our continent in a warming world, then Africa has to develop its own scientific capacity to address the increasingly complex challenges we face in a time of climate change.

Right now, we know that the continent does not have enough scientists. But, at the same time, Africa cannot afford to outsource our technical expertise when it comes to climate change and climate adaptation; we have to build a sustainable pipeline of African researchers who understand the African context and who are committed to solving problems that African farmers face. So, the One Planet Fellowship is about investing in a pipeline of researchers and accelerating the careers of early career scientists who have already made commitments to stay in agricultural research to address issues of climate change and climate adaptation.

So how will the One Planet Fellowship support climate research in Africa through these young researchers?

From the perspective of the Fellowship, we want to know how to prepare our farmers now – how do we make sure they can adapt to what is already happening to them and to the current conditions. We are also trying to understand what the future might look like for Africa and what is coming next.

Over the next 5 years, the One Planet Fellowship will work with 630 laureates all across the continent – from 14 Anglophone and Francophone countries. So, what is really important is the pan-African nature of what we are trying to do; science on the continent is traditionally divided across language but, beyond that, the collaboration across Anglophone and Francophone Africa is not frequent enough. The design of the One Planet Fellowship is, therefore, encouraging collaboration across the language divide.

In addition, the programme also brings on board not just African scientists but also early career European scientists to help ensure that they have an understanding of two things; first, the context in which climate change adaptation research is conducted on the continent, and second, the priorities that Africa researchers have when it comes to this field of study. By combining these two crucial aspects, we amplify the investments that we are trying to make with One Planet Fellowship.

What are the key aspects of the fellowship programme that will help build this pipeline of climate researchers?

This programme will support not only women but also men as it is vital that we include gender and social inclusion into climate research. Every single one of the laureates is going to need to learn and show an ability to incorporate a gender lens into their research and that is absolutely critical for the continent. Up to now, it is appalling that we’ve been building an agricultural ecosystem on this continent that doesn’t take gender seriously enough, yet we know that gender is an essential factor; compared to the west, African women are at the heart of agricultural production. So how can we continue to research systems that don’t respond to that reality? There is no doubt that women will be more vulnerable to climate change as they are the ones that care for the families and grow the food for the household. The reality for African women is one that needs to be understood and addressed.

Mentoring is also at the heart of the fellowship’s design and is important in the African context where we have a gap in the middle layer of researchers – many are older on the verge of retirement and we have younger, earlier career researchers. There was a lack of investment in people in the 80s and 90s in Africa and we are bearing the brunt of those decisions. Mentoring is a very important way to bridge that gap by unlocking the wisdom of the older generations before they retire and investing it in the younger generation.

Leadership training is also key – our universities are good at teaching technical skills, but not soft skills. I like joking that any one that’s ever had a bad boss appreciates the importance of soft skills. The One Planet Fellowship recognises the importance of those leadership, communication, mentoring skills – how to have difficult conversations and lead diverse teams, which is critical for the future of science.

Research used to be more of a solitary occupation, but this seems to be much more open and collaborative?

Africa is not often thought of as at the cutting edge of science, but it is in a good place to show the way forward on collaborative research. Western-style science in Africa is relatively new, 50-60 years old, and it is easier to change the social narrative, especially in a context where universities are also expected to offer development solutions.

For those who didn’t make it as one of the fellowship laureates, what would your message be for them to in their continuing contribution to climate research?

In this first round, we selected 45 out of over 1,500 applicants so there are over 1,400 that did not make it and that weighs heavily on me; there is a lot of capacity building to be done on the continent and there is a hunger for it.

To those who didn’t make it, I say don’t give up. This is only one opportunity – keep looking out for others. We see you, hear you. The next call for applications is just about to open so please throw your hat in the ring again and apply for everything under the sun.

We are a small initiative – this is just a drop in the ocean – governments are the ones to deliver scale. Whereas we’re proud of the One Planet Fellowship’s exclusivity – it’s harder to get into the fellowship than Harvard – and these laureates represent the best of Africa, it also reminds us of the work ahead and for others to step in and take up the mantel of developing the portfolio of climate scientists. But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities and that gives me hope.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I’m young enough to think that Africa’s complex challenges can be addressed if we harness the demographic dividend of this continent. Our parents’ generation won independence, it’s on us to deliver prosperity.