By Thuku Kariuki

A multitude of Africa’s greatest minds recently assembled in Hammemet, Tunisia. Nearly 1000 scientists, from 38 African countries, discussed issues involving research and innovation, the green transition, global health and the synergy between science and higher education in addition to the role of science in addressing development challenges in society.

This was all done under the auspices of the African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence (ARISE). The initiative was created by the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), and receives funding from the European Union, Carnegie Corporation, among others. ARISE provides a platform for exchanges within Africa and beyond, contributing to sustainable and inclusive development, economic growth, and job creation.

The Executive Director of the Academy, Peggy Oti-Boateng, recognized the urgent need to strengthen Africa’s science base by investing in researchers and building the capacity of African scientists to deliver cutting-edge research. She expanded on this, saying, “The High-level Scientific Convening for ARISE in Tunisia is a testament to our commitment to fostering a robust scientific community in Africa. By investing in our early- to mid-career researchers, we are enhancing their capabilities and fortifying the entire continent’s science base.”

AAS Executive Director, Peggy Oti-Boateng delivering her speech at the ARISE Conference

The event which ran from 4-6 June, had a number of panel discussions featuring international luminaries such as Dr. Rafiq Hamdi, the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium; Shaofeng Hu, UNESCO’s Director of its Division of Science Policy and Basic Sciences; from France, Dr. Vanessa McBride, Science Director at the International Science Council; and Professor Paul Zeleza, Senior Advisor for Strategic Initiatives at Howard University, in Washington, DC.

They lent their expertise to a number of discussions centered around the accomplishments of various African scientists. Dr. Annette Uwineza, University of Rwanda, presented her work on the genomic and environmental factors of neurodevelopmental disorders in children of Sub-Saharan Africa. Hyacinthe Toe, of Burkina Faso’s Malaria Research Center, described her work on the behaviour of insecticide-resistant Aedes aegypti, for dengue and other emerging arboviruses control in West Africa. And Togolese scientist, Dr. Katawoura Beltako, shone a spotlight on his Quantum simulations used in identifying superior energy materials.

Participants in a panel discussion at the ARISE conference

Plenty of Kenyan talent was on display, in the event hosted by the Institut Pasteur de Tunis. Professor Marleen Temmerman, Aga Khan University, delivered a keynote address on Grand Challenges and Opportunities in Global Health while Professor Stephen Agong of Mount Kenya University led a discussion on academic freedom, scientific integrity, and equitable treatment in scientific collaboration.

Kenyan scientist Dr. Bridget Mutuma is one of the most impressive young scientists to come out of East Africa, thanks to the AAS and their ARISE program. Dr. Mutuma has spent her time and energy addressing plastics pollution. These materials have a huge negative impact on health, the environment and economic development in so many African countries.

She has designed a program that aims to assess the distribution of micro-plastics and nano-plastics from selected cities and coastal ecosystems in Kenya. The plastics from the selected areas will be converted into low-cost carbon nanomaterials using environmentally friendly routes. This applied holistic strategy will create job opportunities as well as build human capacity, through nanotechnology training of postgraduate students. The nanomaterials generated will also be applied in the sensor technology to detect pollutants in the air, helping to tackle key global environmental challenges.

Dr. Mutuma works from Nairobi University, where she is a research associate in the Chemistry department. She graduated from Kenyatta University, then received her Masters from Kangwon National University in South Korea, and her PhD from South Africa’s University of Wittwatersrand. She sees in her future a role leading scientists in the area of sensor technology, photo-catalysis and solar energy conversion. They will seek to provide solutions for mitigating plastic and air pollution through innovation and infrastructure development in Africa.

ARISE supports a wide variety of initiatives, often matching scientists from one location, with organizations from other parts of the continent. Ugandan geneticist, Dr. Geoffrey Onanga, works with the Africa Rice Center in Cote D’Ivoire. He noted that drought stress and increased nitrogen fertilizer, used to boost rice production, intensify the impact of rice blast disease, posing a threat to the region’s rice industry and food security. He has designed a program to do something about it.

Dr. Onanga’s plant disease resistance in a changing climate project (PDRCC), aims to combine genomic approaches to identify stable rice traits for improving rice blast resistance in drought situations, under increasing nitrogen fertilizer use. Rice blast is a devastating disease that causes up to 100% rice yield losses. By bringing together bioinformaticians, breeders, and plant pathologists, this project will generate new insights on rice blast interaction. It will also develop new, resistant breeding lines; build capacity; and broaden our collaboration; all of which are critical for accelerating rice breeding and ensuring rice production sustainability in the face of climate change.

Studying in Germany, Dr. Onanga earned his PhD in plant pathology at the Georg-August Universtat in Gottingen. Since, he has worked with the International Rice Research Institute as well as the Africa Rice Center. His long-term goal is to use molecular biology and bioinformatic approaches to better understand plant biotic and abiotic interactions. He intends to create research expertise on rice disease mitigation in a changing climate and crop intensification systems. Dr. Onanga also wants to train young African scientists, and conduct research to guide policymakers in making better crop disease management decisions.

So many other experts are involved in the ARISE program. It is hard to comprehend how many different initiatives are supported by their funding, knowledge and the incubation from their platform. The AAS continues to march forward on so many fronts. But they take a lot of pride in what was accomplished in early June 2024 in Tunisia.

Dr. Obed Ogega, the Academy’s Programmes Manager, reflected on his organization’s long-term goals, while considering the next phase of the ARISE program. The program promises to revolutionise Africa’s research and innovation landscape, strengthening research capacities across disciplines, while catalysing scientific exchanges within Africa and with the rest of the world.

Dr. Ogega opines, “Our goal is to support the next generation of African research leaders that will contribute to the delivery of the ‘Africa We Want’, as envisioned in the African Union Agenda 2063…Our event has showcased the remarkable talent of our researchers, whose work ranges from renewable energy solutions and climate change adaptation to food security and health innovations. These researchers are addressing some of the most pressing issues African communities face today.”

With the continued support of the AAS and their ARISE initiative, young African scientists will continue to meet the continent’s challenges, and lead the rest of the world in creating a healthy, innovative and abundant world for future generations.