Sudanese media have a rich history, but they have failed to cover science

September 20, 2012

Ochieng’ Ogodo

Ochieng’ Ogodo
Sub-Saharan Africa regional news editor, SciDev.Net


You may not know but the modern press has existed in Sudan since 1903 with the first publication being Al-Sudan newspaper.  But even with that long history, the media in Sudan have been dominated by political issues with science having little or no place in the print or electronic media.

And a Sudanese journalist, Ishraga Abbas, could not have put it more precisely: “Despite the fact that the Sudanese press has succeeded in attracting and mobilizing the Sudanese people in all political issues, it has failed at the scientific level.”

She told the workshop that about 60 press companies are in the hands of the private investors whose main interest is in reeking in huge profits and does give science journalism a chance — they do not consider science news as capable of gaining following among their readers and listeners.

In Sudan, there are no segments in the media dedicated to science news, training programmes on science journalism and any journalist thinking of cutting a niche for herself in science journalism could be “making a grave mistake” according to  Abbas.

The media in Sudan allocates very little space for the scientific issues — a little surge is only seen when there is an emergency, especially those to do with public health, food safety and the environment.

But even in these noble efforts, according to Abbas, the quality still is still wanting in meeting the depth and the professional standards that guide by journalism.

Perhaps, the saddest thing about this is that this revelation came against a backdrop of a visible surge in African science communication and science journalism, of which this meeting clearly demonstrates.

Something needs to be done to rescue Sudan science journalism from its present state.

“The people of Sudan need scientific information to help them address the many changes they face in their daily lives,” Abbas.

This blog post is part of our Making Science and Technology Information More Accessible for Africa’s Development blog, which takes place 19-20 September 2012, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

Debate erupts over whether science journalists must have a background in science

September 20, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Do science journalists need an educational background in science? The issue the invariably creates controversy whenever science journalists meet to discuss the quality of their profession. This week’s workshop in Addis Ababa has been no exception.

The spark that set off the debate was a recommendation from a survey of media coverage of science and technology in Africa carried out by the department of journalism and communication at Makerere University in Uganda, and sponsored by UNESCO.

According to Ivan Lukanda from Makerere, who presented the results of the survey to the workshop, “it is important for media organizations to invest in people with science and technology backgrounds rather than those with only journalistic knowledge and skills”.

Predictably, this did not go down too with some of the science journalists in the room. George Claassen, who is both a prominent South African science journalist and a lecturer in science journalism at Stellenbosch University, strongly contested the conclusion.

Some of the best science journalists he knew, he said, did not have a scientific background, but had picked up their knowledge of science through both personal and professional interest. “It’s the ability to ask the right question that counts,” he said.

Otula Owuor, editor and publisher of ScienceAfrica, based in Nairobi, Kenya, said that the idea that a science journalist needed a good scientific background was “outdated”.

He added that “a well-trained journalist who is interested in the issues that he or she is writing about will produce a good article”, regardless of their educational background.

Another protest came from Dino Onifade of Nigeria, publisher of the website, and president of the African Federation of Science Journalists.

Onifade — who started his career as a business journalist — argued a science journalist had to cover so many topics that training in one scientific discipline was of little value in writing about others. And he claimed that the Makerere researchers lacked empirical evidence to justify their recommendation on the need for a scientific background.

But Lukanda stuck to his guns. He pointed to a finding of the Makerere study that very few media houses invest in training their reporters to cover science and technology. As a result, most journalists did not feel confident writing about science, he said.

Indeed he quoted a conclusion of the study that “the lack of knowledge and skills among journalists explains the little and low quality of coverage offered to science and technology”. This one will clearly run and run, in Africa as elsewhere.

This blog post is part of our Making Science and Technology Information More Accessible for Africa’s Development blog, which takes place 19-20 September 2012, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

Communication gap as the greatest impediment to science’s role in development

September 19, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

It’s almost ten years since SciDev.Net launched its first regional network — covering Sub-Saharan Africa  — to promote science communication in the developing world, at a meeting held in Entebbe, Uganda.

At the time, the idea that science communication had an important role to play in African development was relatively new. Indeed, even support for science was still seen as a luxury not only by many African governments, but also — with some notable exceptions — by international aid agencies.

Today, few such doubts remain. If they do, they were not in evidence during the opening session of the two-day workshop ‘Making science and technology information more accessible for Africa’s development’, being held this week at the seat of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The meeting is bringing together about 50 science journalists and science communication specialists from across Africa. Their task is not to address whether science communication has a role in development, but how this role can best be fulfilled.

At the opening session this morning, Jean-Pierre Ilboudo, regional advisor for UNESCO, described how the workshop was the second of five of a series of five being organized across Africa, the first of which took place in Abuja, Nigeria, last November.

“The greatest impediment to the development of science, technologic and innovation in Africa, and its contribution to African development, is the communication gap that exists among the major actors and players,” he said.

The media could play a critical role in bridging this gap, Ilboudo added, since journalists played an important function as intermediaries between scientists, policy-makers and the public.

UNECA conference centre (Credit: David Dickson)

Thierry Amoussougbo, of the ICT, Science and Technology Division of the UNECA, speaking on behalf of the division director, Aida Opoku-Mensah, had a similar message about the important of building capacity in both science and science communication.

But be pointed out that there were many impediments to communicating scientific output. “For example, unlike areas such as sport, politics and culture, science reporting is not part of the daily routine in most media houses.”

Problems ranged from the preference of journalists schools to admit students with backgrounds others than science, to the fact that scientists have their own communication outlets, such as scientific journals, from science reporters were left on their own to extract information.

On the positive side, however, Amoussougbo noted that several science magazines and feature services, as well as programmes on TV and radio, have recently emerged. “There is currently an environment to improve and intensity science communication on the continent,” he said.

There was an equally positive message from Mohamuda Gaas,  State Minister of Science and Technology, Federal Republic of Ethiopia.

“In an era of globalization, the ability of any country to achieve a decent standard of living depends on the extent to which it can harness science and technology for development,” he said.

“It is therefore critical to promote science, technology and innovation, and strive to get the maximum benefit out of them by creating an environment conducive to accessing any information that could contribute to the enhancement of economic growth and development.”

All very positive so far.

There is general agreement — perhaps not surprising in a meeting of science communicators — that science communication is important, and needs reinforcing in any way possible.

The real test of the meeting will lie in the practical steps that some out of it. One already on the table, according to Ilboudo of UNESCO, is the creation of an East Africa of Science Journalists Network. Others will form part of a plan of action due to be approved at the end of the meeting.

More will be known tomorrow.

This blog post is part of our Making Science and Technology Information More Accessible for Africa’s Development blog, which takes place 19-20 September 2012, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

Improving science communication for Africa’s development

September 17, 2012

Ochieng’ Ogodo

Ochieng’ Ogodo
Sub-Saharan Africa regional news editor, SciDev.Net

Science journalism continues to gain grounds in Africa: from Nairobi to Cairo, Abuja to Addis Ababa and Johannesburg, something positive is being done by science journalists, their networks and other concerned organisations and bodies.

Addis Ababa is this week hosting a two-day science communication training workshop with the theme ‘Making Science and Technology Information More Accessible for Africa’s Development’.

The meeting organised by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the African Union Commission, in collaboration with the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ethiopian Association of Science Journalists, puts yet more emphasis on how science is important for Africa’s socio-economic transformation and democratisation.

Africa still suffers from myriad developmental challenges ranging from poverty, disease and ignorance. The need for dissemination of science and its tools for change for the continent cannot be gainsaid.

One of the bottlenecks to the development of science, technology and innovation sector in Africa and its contribution to the continent’s development is the communication gap among the major actors and players, both from within and outside the science sector.

Much as Africa still faces many challenges in producing home-grown science. There is high level of illiteracy and lack of appropriate communication tools. This is leading to scientific works remaining on the laboratories’ shelves instead of being tapped by those who need them most, the end-users.

The scarce funding for science and technology sectors, among others, can be attributed to poor understanding of the role of science and technology can play in development within the policymaking circles.

The media can play a great and critical role for Africa’s socio-economic development.

But the communication of scientific knowledge through mass media requires a special relationship between the world of science and news media, including the ability of journalist to report on complex issues in a way understandable by policymakers and the general public.

SciDev.Net will have three science journalists, including former editor David Dickson, Esther Nakkazi and myself to feed you with quality blog and news stories on the Addis Ababa meeting. Keep your eyes on this space.

This blog post is part of our Making Science and Technology Information More Accessible for Africa’s Development blog, which takes place 19-20 September 2012, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. To read news and analysis on science journalism please visit our website.

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


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


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


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.

%d bloggers like this: