ASJC declaration on effective science reporting

August 24, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


Approximately 180 delegates from all regions of Africa have committed to lobby for an African country to host the World Conference of Science Journalists in 2015.

The journalists were attending the first ASJC on promoting science journalism for socio-economic development. International and local scientific research institutions, officials representing the Kenyan government, and funding partners also committed to seek strategic partnerships with funding, research, academic and media institutions that recognize the need to promote science journalism in Africa.

“We commit ourselves to sustain the continuous engagement between journalists and scientists to build trust and ensure appropriate information flow to the public,” reads part of the statement.

The declaration also called on scientific research agencies and academic institutions to ensure that African science journalists are included throughout the duration of their research.

Journalists in Africa. Photo credit: Internews Network, flickr

The declaration was read during the closing ceremony of the ASJC, by the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture secretary Aghan Daniel. He called on scientific research agencies to prioritise working with African journalists through regular forums, networking, training, conferences, and exhibitions.

The declaration also recommended that African governments take the lead in ensuring that there are reduced ‘red tape’ measures on legislation that promotes science and development.

“The civil society organisation should ensure the recognition and reporting of the work of African scientists without distortion. There should be meaningful involvement of journalists at all stages in the development of research findings from the various African research and academic institutions,” said the statement.

According to Daniel, this is a working document, but there are hopes of turning it into a policy document to help guide how science reporting and communication is carried out in Africa.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Farming needs technology boost to inspire youth

August 24, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


Using more technology in African agriculture will attract much-needed youth to the sector, said Dr Jack Ouda, a technology specialist at the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute at the ASJC on Thursday evening.

Ouda said that agriculture is being driven by the elderly and people who have found themselves with few options in life. He believes that “technologising” the sector will benefit not only the farmers, but generate millions of jobs by creating broader value chains.

African agriculture remains rudimentary and in the hands of people that the youth do not consider to be role models, Ouda argued. This means that very few young people join the sector, placing its future in huge jeopardy.

“When we allow agriculture to remain in the hands of the aged and people considered to be failures, we make it extremely unattractive to youth,” said Ouda.

“One major way of attracting young people to the sector is by using more technology. This will increase production as well as create value chains that will lead to the employment of millions,” he added.

Tilling fields in Nigeria. Photo credit: World Bank, flickr

Ouda said that people work in agriculture because they already own the land and lack other opportunities, which makes modernising the sector with new technologies a challenge.

The youth, he noted, did not ‘despise’ the sector, but were not inspired by seeing farmers toil for days on end using hand tools.

Eighty per cent of the African population engages in agriculture, compared to an average of only ten per cent in the developed world, thanks to the extensive use of technology.

“When you use more technology in agriculture you maximise efficiency and free more land for production,” Ouda said.

He emphasised that science journalists on the continent must play their part by actively promoting agriculture technologies to ensure food security and economic development in the future.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Prioritising science as a tool for sustainable development

August 24, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


The media are seen as a critical partner in the development and promotion of science, technology and innovation (STI) in Africa. Now, they have been challenged to make science a priority for sustainable development.

While officially closing the ASJC yesterday evening, Kenya’s permanent secretary in the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Professor Crispus Kiamba, said STI has been globally recognised as a driver for sustainable development.

“Research and STI are the cornerstones of most economies in the world. Thus, the poor performance of the sector in Africa directly translates into dismal living conditions of people in the continent, particularly those in the rural areas and the urban poor,” said Professor Kiamba.

Research is to be used as a tool to drive development. Photo credit: Gates Foundation

For science to be given precedence as a tool for sustainable development, Kiamba noted there must be effective communication. He said the media must play an “agenda-setting” role by appropriately sensitising policy makers, the general public, scientists, industrialists and entrepreneurs.

“It is important to recognize the need to stimulate home-grown technological innovations and scientific discoveries in the fast-changing global business climate,” he said.

Kiamba emphasised the need for Africa to create competitive grant systems for research and development activities targeting the continent’s rich natural resources, agriculture, health and biotechnology.

The first ASJC brought together approximately 180 participants from various African countries. It came to a close last night with a declaration on effective science reporting. Africa has been accused of having many declarations, policies and documents that never get implemented, so many are waiting with bated breath to see what the next course of action will be.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Which way for Africa’s biotechnology development?

August 23, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


With only three African countries – South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso – commercially growing genetically modified (GM) crops and others including Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria carrying out field trials, Africa remains at a crossroads on how to tap into the potentials of biotechnology to address her myriad food and development challenges.

In an emotive presentation at the ongoing ASJC on biotechnology titled ‘Promises and Reality of the GM Revolution’, Professor Eucharia Kenya, the director at the International Centre for Health Interventions and Research in Africa, pointed out that biotech crops are a product of innovation and there is the need to “manage change as an opportunity, not as a threat”.

Professor Kenya also noted that conventional crop improvement alone will not double crop production to cater for the burgeoning world population, which is expected to shoot up to nine billion by 2050.

“We need a crop improvement strategy that integrates the best of the old [conventional methods] and the best of the new [biotechnology] to optimize productivity and contribute to food, feed and fibre security and address climate change,” said Eucharia.

Which way for Africa?

While answering the question, Kenya noted that there is need to engage in discussion on biotechnology issues. “We need to communicate with society objectively and consistently. Choices must be made from informed points of view,” she said.

According to Professor Kenya, inadequately developed legal and institutional frameworks for GM regulations, thin capacities for inspection and monitoring compliance and inadequate fora for public engagement are some of the regulatory challenges facing sub-Saharan countries.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


In the war on HIV, Africa cannot rely on donors alone

August 23, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


Africa’s contribution to HIV/AIDS vaccine research remains low, despite the continent bearing the heaviest burden of the disease.

The continent’s contribution to the vaccine and other medical research initiatives tends to come at the tail-end of research process, at the clinical trials stage.

Participants at the Africa Science Journalists Conference (ASJC) in Nakuru were told that while the continent has the capacity for ‘basic science’, it lacks the resources needed to initiate medical research. This is because huge financial input is required at the laboratory stage.

Gaudensia Nzengi, a medical researcher with the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative (KAVI), told the forum that only South Africa had the capacity to undertake expensive medical research, with the rest of the continent relying heavily on knowledge transfer.

All is not lost though, as there are over 30 vaccine initiatives ongoing in Africa, she noted.

AIDS research in Kenya. Photo credit: KAVI

“There has been progress in the war against HIV/AIDS as infection rates have dropped significantly,” Nzengi said. “Mother-to-child transmissions have also decreased.”

Nzengi told the audience of the ‘breakthrough’ in paediatric HIV infections in Kenya, where infection rates have fallen to around one per cent compared to past figures of 40 per cent.

Progress may be due to the increased availability of HIV-suppressing drugs, but she warned that this may be eroded unless governments start providing their own anti-retrovirals as opposed to wholly relying on donors.

“The era of free HIV drugs is coming to an end and governments will soon have to start funding treatment themselves. External funders who currently bear the treatment burden are getting tired,” Nzengi added.

Part of the reason, she observed, was that economies across Africa were experiencing sustained growth even though western economies continued to battle suppressed growth.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Kenya’s draft bill promises a hike to 2% of GDP for science

August 23, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


It has never been disputed that Africa must increase her spending on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). It is also true that research on the continent is heavily funded by donors, with governments prioritizing expenditure on social development.

Calls have been made for authorities to raise STI spending and the African Union (AU) countries have all agreed, resolving to increase funding to at least one per cent of their GDP. This, however, has never happened, and only South Africa comes remotely close to attaining that figure.

But next year, Kenya could become the first country to reach this target, and perhaps even exceed it.

Margaret Kamar speaking at the ASJC. Photo credit: AbsfAfrica, Twitter

The country’s minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, Margaret Kamar, says her ministry has prepared an STI policy bill that has recommended that the government ups spending on this key sector to two per cent.“The draft bill has now been approved by the cabinet ahead of debate in parliament,” she told the Africa Science Journalists Conference. “The good news is that the cabinet has unanimously agreed on recommendations for increased funding.”

The move means that the draft law will now move to parliament for debate and enactment. Since there is no apparent reason why the funding would be opposed, the STI sector in Kenya should be successful.

This could begin as soon as next June when budget proposals are tabled before parliament, making the east African country compliant with STI funding agreements.

There is reason for optimism after all.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Engaging Vulnerable Communities in Health Research

August 23, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Wellcome Trust Research Programme has revised its research activities to include vulnerable community members as key stakeholders.

“It seems curious that we invest millions of dollars in product development, clinical training, design and building of facilities but often leave out vital processes of community engagement,” Ruth Wanjala, the communications officer for the KEMRI Wellcome Trust told participants attending the ASJC.

Engagement is coordinated by the programme’s community liaison group, elected representatives who act as an interface between the research centre and the community.

Community meeting in Kenya. Photo credit: waterdotorg, flickr

The group is also responsible for community relations between the research centre and the locals.“The community liaison group meet with local administrative, religious and opinion leaders to engage them with our research activities and distribute information, education and communication materials to other community members,” said Wanjala.

She noted that it is necessary to have a structured engagement mechanism with policymakers through Kenya’s ministries of health to translate research outcomes into policy and practice.

The KEMRI Wellcome Trust works across several African countries and is recognized for its research in malaria and many other areas of health.

According to Wanjala, the centre has so far produced over 45 African PhDs and another 44 are currently undertaking their PhD training.

The ASJC is expected to come to a close later today with an African declaration on effective science reporting.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Biotechnology regulation is “stifling growth”

August 22, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


Stringent regulation of biotechnology is making students in African universities shy away from postgraduate study, as they believe it will be difficult to find jobs.

The strict regulation has stifled growth of biotechnology, making it hard for graduates to find jobs or put their knowledge to practical use. Meanwhile, the continent continues to be in urgent need of technologies to solve her myriad food, health and development problems.

As a result, graduates with a first degree in biosciences are finding jobs in unrelated fields such as banking, due to a lack of opportunities in the biotech sub-sector.

“In Kenya’s Kenyatta university, the master’s course used to be able to attract as many as 45 students,” said Professor Eucharia Kenya, a former lecturer at the institution and now a consultant at the International Centre for Health Interventions and Research in Africa (ICHIRA). “Now, even getting ten is becoming a problem.”

At a session on biotechnology and food security at the ASJC, she warned that strict regulation was ‘killing’ the key sub-sector, putting graduates off pursuing postgraduate study.

Analysis in a Kenyan lab. Photo credit: Sustainable sanitation, flickr

Another speaker, Dr Roy Mugira, a technology policy specialist with Kenya’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, told the event that biotechnology is most expendable unit in the biological sciences.

“African governments are quick to put regulation in place on biotechnology before they have even acquired the technologies,” he said.

He observed that African countries often ‘play the victim’ with biotechnology, behaving as if the field was promoted internationally with the purpose of harming them.

This, he noted, means that governments heavily legislate the technology as opposed to exploring the area, resulting in stifled growth.

“When you over-regulate biotechnology, you strangle technology, leaving little space for growth or commercialisation,” noted Dr Mugira.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Telling stories using data and numbers

August 22, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


After an evening involving a tranquil dinner and free-flowing drinks at the ASJC’s opening ceremony yesterday, the participants embarked on serious business by dividing into various topic-specific groups.

Of particular interest was the session on data journalism run by Ernest Waititu, the programme director of health and digital media for Internews in Kenya.

In Waititu’s own words, “we live in a world where almost everything is expressed in numbers”. As the concept of telling stories using figures, numbers and data was fairly new, participants attending the session were shown how to get started with data journalism by being taken through sets of data.

“Mine the data first to find where the story is and humanize it,” said Waititu. It was an interactive session where journalists were taught hands-on data mining, filtering and analytical skills.

“In data journalism, there are so many stories to tell,” he said, adding that journalists need to know how to process numbers in Excel and other similar software programs.

Data journalism training in Nairobi. Photo credit: Friedrich Lindenberg

According to Waititu, journalists need to know how the public system works and how to interpret laws for effective use of data. “If a journalist doesn’t understand how the institutions of his or her country work, the data trail can be frustrating,” he said.

With most university journalism schools not teaching data journalism, journalists were encouraged to utilise any available training opportunities.

The first hands-on training session on data journalism was held earlier this year in Nairobi by the World Bank, Google (Open Knowledge Foundation) and the African Media Initiative.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


Kenya to establish grant for women in science

August 22, 2012

George Achia
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


Women scientists in Kenya got a major boost yesterday when the government announced it would establish a grant which awards female scientists up to three million Kenyan shillings. The announcement was made during the opening ceremony of the ASJC in Nakuru.

The move will put women scientists on a par with their male counterparts, allowing them to conduct research of relevance to the country.

“Participation of women in research has been low in many developing countries,” said Moses Rugutt, deputy secretary of Kenya’s National Council of Science and Technology during the ASJC opening gala. “Negative social and cultural practices have not allowed full exploitation of their research potential.”

Female PhD student collecting samples in Uganda. Photo credit: Karen Homer, AWARD

Rugutt noted that national development depends on a well-trained technical labour force, especially in science and technology.

“Kenya still lags behind in the technical human capacity required to unlock the huge potential within its agricultural fields and drive its industries,” he said.

Rugutt called for the need to lobby for at least one per cent GDP investment for Kenya to reap the full potential of science, technology and innovation (STI) for socio-economic development.

He challenged the science journalists attending the ASJC to help push the STI agenda to enable African countries to use science and technology as a platform to boost economic development.

According to Rugutt, there is a need to engage science journalists in effectively articulating STI issues by disseminating research information on STI, setting national and regional STI agendas and exposing scientific malpractice.

Many developing countries of the world have used STI to drive their development agenda based on sound research and innovative technological investment.

This blog post is part of our Africa Science Journalists Conference 2012 blog, which takes place 20-23 August in Nakuru, Kenya. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.


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