Muza Gondwe: The Royal African Science Prize

Muza GondweThe audience falls deathly silent in the flamboyantly adorned grand hall where scientists from across Africa have congregated to hear the announcement. Meanwhile, in distant homelands people crowd around televisions and radios, waiting with baited breath.

“This year’s Royal African Science Prize is awarded for scientific achievement that has dramatically improved the health of millions of people not only in Africa but across the world. Their steadfast commitment to overcoming any and all challenges and their unwavering determination led them to a discovery that has transformed the lives of millions.” And they will rise proudly to thundering applause, bursting with pride to have received the highest scientific accolade and to be recognized by their people for their contribution. 

It may seem fictitious now, but it is my hope in time that this will be a reality. My experience working on the project African Science Heroes and interviewing African scientists has taught me one important lesson that as Africans we need our own prestigious science award to recognize our own scientific talents. Awards do exist in various disciplines, for various career levels, and ones specifically for women, but could you name one award that is revered across the continent?

I would often ask the African scientists, “Why do you think that still today, no black African has won a Nobel Prize in the science subjects?” and some would answer it’s political, others that we do not have the resources – infrastructure, funding, protected time, equipment, the usual litany of problems that research in Africa faces. The answer that really struck me was from Prof. Nelson Sewankambo who said, “We may not have the infrastructure to conduct research that is worthy of a Nobel prize but the research that significantly impacts on millions of lives is equally important.” Prof. Nelson Sewankambo is a Professor of Medicine and Principal of the Makerere University College of Health Science, Uganda. He has been working in HIV and AIDS research for over twenty years and was one of the first Africans to publish data on HIV in 1985. His research work has had a major impact on HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment, and care. His team participated in a study on male circumcision that is considered one of the top medical breakthroughs of the 21st century.

Often awards single out an individual scientist or a pair of scientists, yet such notable achievements require a team of people. The lab technician who slaved overnight doing the PCRs, the nurse who drew the samples, and the statisticians who unearthed the all important correlation, should also be recognised. After all in Africa, we exist in communities and not in isolation.

We don’t need an African Nobel, but our own way of recognizing and celebrating achievements in all scientific disciplines from mathematics via biochemistry through to astronomy and environmental science. We need awards that will capture the interests of everyone across the continent from school drop outs to graduates, both the young and the old, the urban and rural, the artists and the scientists.

My nominees would be, for technological innovation, Ushahidi for developing a platform for the collection and visualization of information that has brought awareness to crisis and other situations across the globe. For agriculture, Prof. Gebisa Ejeta who revived sorghum, a dying staple food, by introducing a drought- and weed- resistant high yielding variety that has improved the food security of millions. In health and medicine, Prof. Nelson Sewankambo and Rakai Health Science Program for their work on HIV and AIDS, which is shared jointly with, Prof. Olufunmilayo Olopade, who has revolutionized breast cancer treatment in people of African descent. In earth sciences, Prof. Berhane Asfaw, who discovered a humanoid species in Ethiopia that revealed a transition into modern humans. An honorary prize to the African Institute of Mathematics and Prof. Neil Turok for the Next Einstein initiative, which is supporting the development of the next Einstein from Africa. For local innovation Mr. Frederick Msiska, a grade 5 dropout who built a biogas toilet. And a long service award for Prof. Francis Allotey for his dedication to promoting mathematical physics and information technology for development in Africa.

Who would be on your nomination list?

Muza Gondwe is a science communicator from Malawi who is keen to engage Africans with science. She is currently on a fellowship at the Centre of African Studies on the Public Understanding of Science in Africa, working on a project titled African Science Heroes.