Muza Gondwe on expanding the African Science Café network

Muza GondweMagical, subversive, and democratic are the words that Dr.Daniel Glaser, head of  special projects in public engagement at the Wellcome Trust, used to describe the charm of science cafes in mediating dialogue between scientists and the public. He said this during a two day workshop on African Science cafes held in Nairobi, Kenya last month.

A science cafe, known around the world as café scientifique “is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context.”

The aims of the workshop were to share experiences and lessons learnt from science cafes in the UK, Kenya, and Malawi and to provide skills and knowledge to help participants host science cafes, and receive input in developing an African Science Café Best Practices Toolkit.

Among the 20 participants were communication officers from various research organisations and personnel from the National Council of Science Technology and the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, and Technology in Kenya. It was also graced by the endearing presence of Duncan Dallas, “the Godfather of Science Cafes,” and science communicators who work in engaging the media and policy makers.

Science cafes are slowly and steadily spreading across the African continent. Regular cafes are being held in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Ghana, and Morocco.  It began in 2007 at a workshop on African Science Cafes in South Africa supported by the British Council.  Their growth has now been mainly thanks to funds from the Wellcome Trust International Engagement awards that has seen Junior Science Cafes (science cafes in schools) set up in Uganda, run by Betty Kituyi. She works with 29 schools in Uganda to bring scientists into schools. Patrice Mawa, also in Uganda, is spearheading science cafes in local languages, and Ruth Wanjala and Juliette Mutheu have over 20 science cafes across Kenya under their care.

Much debated at the workshop was the aim of science cafes – are they about informing, educating, raising awareness, or promoting dialogue between scientists and the public? Who is the target audience? Are they effective in reaching the disengaged or are we preaching to the converted? Are they a useful tool for addressing low levels of scientific literacy? And how best should we evaluate the impact of these cafes? In the African context, can we do away with the organizers providing free refreshments?

It is hoped, that this workshop has provided the impetus to roll out the sustainable expansion of science cafés across Africa.