Alliance for Science shifts strategy to widen its mandate

Joseph Maina

November 3, 2022

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek– Senator Barack Obama’s speech to supporters after the nomination contests, February 2008.

Those words, by the former US President, Barack Obama, best encapsulates the wind of change signalled by the establishment of AfS’ Global South Hub (covering Africa, Latin America and Asia), a major platform to help articulate the region’s quest for homegrown solutions to its pressing needs. In establishing the Hub on August 31 in Nairobi, AfS envisaged a revisioning of the Global South as an area full of potential and ready to shift from relief to resilience. In this interview, the AfS Executive Director, Dr Sheila Ochugboju, explains to Joseph Maina, the AfS’s expanded mandate.



Question: Tell us why you chose Africa (and Kenya in particular) to host the Global South Hub.

Sheila: Africa gives us an opportunity to ride the waves of innovation and demographic shifts. In Africa is where the impact of problems and challenges – such as climate change and food insecurity – are felt most. I have a deep belief that where the problem exists is where the answer lies. Africa is very close to my heart. It is one of the youngest continents with an average age of 19.7 years. Kenya, in particular, is a tech hub leading the world in many innovations. It’s also a climate change hub. The UN has a major presence here, with UNEP being situated in the capital Nairobi. We are going to be using the majority of our resources in Africa, and it’s, therefore, important to have a strong base of operations in the continent.


Question: How is AfS fairing so far in this new strategic shift?

Sheila: We’ve hit the ground running. I’ve always felt that we were a small organisation trying to punch above its weight, but our brand recognition is strong and our voice is well respected. All this is largely attributable to our founder, Dr Sarah Evanega, and her personal drive, vision and charisma. Right from the launch, people warmly embraced the concept, and we’ve so far received compliments from allies all across Latin America and Asia. It may seem like a small shift, but it resonates powerfully with our communities. It opens doors for bigger conversations and new partnerships.


Question: Anything new we can expect to see from AfS in this new role?

Sheila: Yes. For starters, we’ll have on board new partners that are perhaps not traditional to us. We’ve been very focused on biotechnology, with science and media partners, and we’re well known and respected in that community. Now with our expanded mandate, we’ll bring in bigger partners. For example, in looking at climate change we’ll have partnerships with UN agencies such as UNFCCC. We’ll also be supporting African scientists particularly to work with IPCC process to contribute towards the core science that basically underlies our conversations about climate change.

On global health, we’ll focus on biotech in health and health information, bringing in partners like WHO and Africa-CDC. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that we didn’t have the communications infrastructure for health information and things that need to quickly shift behaviour change while helping people understand the choices they’re making are good for their health. We need to bring in partners that will help us do better, because now we realise there’ll be another pandemic. We must make sure that we’re resilient and in a state of constant preparedness.

In addition, we’ll be doing more research work around science communication and what kind of communication is powerful in shifting behavioural change while effectively curbing misinformation. We’ll focus on how to fight fake news across the board in every sphere of our lives., It’s important that we establish our strength in understanding and developing tools to challenge it while supporting those who want to know the truth in order to make better choices.

In each of our focus areas, we’ll be highlighting community impact stories. Through our communications director Juliett Otieno, we’re developing partnerships with communities on the ground. We will be supporting them in various areas including policy support. An example is the County of Kajiado in Kenya. We’re forming a partnership with the County, which is predominantly a pastoralist community that is presently faced with severe drought and waiting for food aid. That made me think about what is the grand narrative that is going to hold together our work over the next year at least. The grand narrative which will be manifest is from Relief to Resilience. We’ll be looking at where our fragilities lie; factors that make us stop in our tracks and beg for food aid and disaster relief.


Question: What can we do to make us more resilient?

Sheila: The hashtag #relieftoresilience frames all our communication and narrative in the initiative. We’re going to film community impact stories in the County of Kajiado and other Kenyan Counties and in Zambia with one of the communities. In addition to filming, we shall engage with the communities in a long-term relationship to support them if they’re looking for policy change. Kajiado County has a very visionary ministry for agriculture and livestock. They are trying to lift community understanding of building resilience through supporting pastoralist communities to begin to look at feed and not just allowing animals to roam freely only to suffer from lack of feed when drought strikes. The ministry is trying to develop other sorts of livelihood options and capacity to develop feed, while supporting the women in dairy farming.

We want to document such subtle shifts in the community through our videographers and our visual anthropologist. Visual anthropology means that we’re not just capturing stories as casual observers. Rather, we are creating a channel for two-way communication so that we also learn what’s happening on the ground and also become the catalysts for behavior change. Overall, we are learning to communicate better.

We’re also going to train the communities to communicate to reflect. The wonderful thing about communication is that it helps you to see yourself. When you tell a story of yourself to yourself, that’s how you understand yourself. We want to offer that mirror to them. I want to do such community impact engagement in Kenya, Uganda and hopefully in Nigeria. We also have Farming Future Bangladesh, who are already very strong on communication, and we want to do lots of South-South collaboration moving forward.


Question: AfS has spelt out four key messages that underlie its expanded mandate. These are: Biotech Innovations for Resilient Futures, Climate Solutions for Enhanced Food Security, Nutritious Food for Better Health and Fighting Misinformation to Build Trust in Science. Please paint for us a brief picture of the situation and the challenges that informed this approach.

Sheila: Our world is increasingly more fragile because of challenges such as Climate Change. Every year, at least 2 or 3 extreme weather events occur in every community around the world. These impacts of climate change have devastating effects on the environment, climate change, biodiversity, human health and food production. We know there are solutions available that biotech can offer to fight the climate emergency, and we saw this in health particularly with vaccines. People died because of misinformation and because they didn’t understand the science. The challenge of the information gap is huge and it’s costly because in the end lives are at stake.

If you can’t feed people, lives are at stake. Biotech offers opportunities for the global south to develop climate resilient crops that can tolerate drought, resist pests and diseases, tolerate salty soils, among other vagaries of weather. If people don’t access these seeds and the vaccines that are available, lives are at stake. If scientists can’t do their work, there’s a lag in technology coming up, thus putting lives are at stake. Basically, lives and livelihoods are at stake in all those four issue areas because of poor science communication and misinformation. I think this presents an opportunity for us to be a bigger and more encompassing vehicle.


Question: What are your thoughts on the role and place of women in Africa’s agricultural production?

Sheila: First of all, agriculture is the backbone of almost all our economies in Africa. Agriculture constitutes between 60-80 percent of the economy of almost every country in Africa. Women are responsible for 60 percent of the agricultural labor on farms in Sub-Saharan Africa. They produce 80 percent of the continent’s food. And yet, around three out of every four are in the informal sector. At the same time, these women have no access to land titles, meaning they generally work but have no rights to   land ownership. They generally don’t have access to finance to get seeds and proper inputs. Certainly, these barriers need to be challenged and solutions found as soon as possible. Given that we are looking at agricultural technologies, we are focusing on women because they are the ones impacted by the global challenges, such as climate emergency. That is why we’ve been vocal about the state of women and what needs to be changed.


Question: What can we expect to see in the AfS communications approach moving forward? Please break down your communications philosophy in the context of the Hub.

Sheila: When it comes to communication, I have a number of underlying beliefs. One is that the answer is always within. Before you come with a solution (which we often do in the West), you should also take time to understand what solutions also exist. You may find complementarities or you may even find that there are better solutions and it’s just that you had not seen them as such. People hardly think about solutions coming from the Global South and generally when they do, they just call it indigenous knowledge, traditional wisdom or similar tags. I challenge that by saying it seems like a lesser knowledge, perhaps because it isn’t as explicit as Western science.

But there was a reason why a lot of what we knew was not explicit. We embedded our knowledge within tradition. We embedded it within rituals and stories. That way, we would get more people to understand it and do it. I want the world to understand that everything we did was intentional. The intention was to carry along as many people as possible g in behavior change by embedding them in stories. Within that, there is knowledge that we need to understand. So, as we engage with different communities, I’m always on the lookout for what they know that I don’t know, and how we can use that to share, perhaps, an innovation that layers what they already know.

I think people always know their problems and what the solutions are – it’s just that they may not know it in a conscious way. It’s a different way of knowing. One way of approaching the issue has been through the visual anthropologist, who is venturing into communities and supporting them to tell stories. So, I suggest that we do a particular body of research where we begin to capture some of the local colloquial ways of talking about the science. From this, we ourselves would learn better ways of communicating the science to the community.


Question: Lastly talk to us about the fourth industrial revolution and about the AfS partnership with Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Sheila: We’re on the doorstep of this revolution. Practically everything we have today has a digital conduit – from elections to how we eat our food and how we transport things. Our lives were not as digitized just a decade ago. As Africa, we have the youngest continent. How are we preparing our young people now to live and work in the fourth industrial revolution? How are our education systems teaching our students and what skills are the youth going to need in order to secure jobs in this new scenario?

This may be the one revolution that Africa can lead, and that’s because Africa is not hampered by the legacy of old revolutions. Yes, we can! In this revolution, you need very little infrastructure. The only question is whether you have the knowledge and skills to operate in this field. The tools are available, accessible and come quite cheap. Many people have mobile phones and smart phones and Africa has plenty of tech-savvy people developing innovations and solutions for the continent.

But there is work to be done in changing our education systems and investing now in young people who will lead this revolution; people who can code, develop software apps and who are open to frontier technology in every area of life. Once you appreciate that we’re stepping into the Fourth Industrial Revolution and there’s need to change how we do things, it changes how you think. That’s exciting to me being with an institutional partner who has that lens and is always thinking about future scenarios. That’s where resilience comes from, and biotech and science in general allow our preparedness.

I’m excited working with an institutional host that is nimble in their thinking and embracing change. Partnering with Thunderbird allows us to be part of global conversations.