My career as an academic and environmental professional has allowed me the privilege of working with some of the best and brightest scientists on the planet. These are colleagues from all over the world from all stages of their careers, who strive towards and excel at creating new knowledge and new applications of knowledge.
These brilliant professionals are committed to solving some of the greatest challenges of the 21st century – including the climate crisis, food insecurity, gender inequality, and access to health care. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could create a critical mass of excellence in knowledge and its application, and do so together with communities, businesses, and governments? This is essential to accelerate and scale up positive change in lives and livelihoods.
Could we bring together a critical mass of youth leadership and experienced mentors to create a new generation of thought and action leaders? This would establish a peer group and their partner networks with authoritative knowledge, which is grounded in the daily experience of communities and organisations living and working at the sharp end of these global challenges. This group would have the authority to give voice to citizens and enterprises impacted by these grave challenges, to influence global agendas, catalyse action and get things done.
My participation as a mentor in FSNet-Africa has shown me that all of these things are possible and happening. This project focuses on transforming African food systems, and my involvement in it is one of the most inspiring, thought-provoking, and rewarding experiences of my career.
What an idea! The thinking behind the FSNet-Africa project was to engage early-career research and education professionals from across an entire continent and raise funding to support the top 20 candidates. This involved creating a team that pairs each researcher together with three mentors, composed of both academic research leaders from Africa and Europe and leaders in professional practice who are participating from stakeholder organisations. The approach is to co-create individual research projects with stakeholders to achieve rapid impact on the ground and to provide experience in action-driven research.
I am a mentor on a tech project. My fellow, Dr Kadeghe Fue, is creating and testing with farmers a smartphone app for the precision application of fertiliser. Kadeghe’s work utilises geospatial imaging data from contract aerial drone operators and translates the information into recommended fertiliser application rates that vary with location within fields.
The benefits of Kadeghe’s work are to bring precision agriculture to farmers who would not otherwise have access to this technology. Kadeghe’s approach can reduce fertiliser costs and improve farm livelihoods, reduce the demands for mineral fertiliser, which has a large carbon footprint to manufacture, and reduce fertiliser pollution in farm runoff so as to protect groundwater and stream water quality.
The FSNet-Africa fellows and projects are made up of amazing individuals and teams. The programme creates a cohesive, collaborative culture and high professional standards and practices by working together. Cohort activities strengthen specific skills that integrate knowledge across the individual research projects. Cohort training requires developing knowledge and skills in systems thinking, gender in research, and working effectively with stakeholders to achieve high-impact research.
The accomplishments are not just the research outputs and impacts, but are also the amazing life experience and connections that occur between partner individuals and organisations. The fellows now have an African-wide and globally-connected professional support network. They have a diverse peer group to share career experiences and brainstorm solutions to individual challenges, and they have access to extensive collaboration partners across Africa and beyond.
My own career has been transformed by participating in FSNet-Africa. My fellow mentors working with Kadeghe are Prof. Lise Korsten at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and Prof. Osden Jokonya at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Our conversations in this research project have sparked new collaborations between our organisations.
Initiated by discussions with Lise, our Universities have embarked on a pilot programme to develop online master’s-level education with the University of Pretoria. A different project that I work on with colleagues in Cape Town, invited Osden because of FSNet-Africa links to our initial project workshop established earlier this year. The work is led by African humanities and social sciences scholars who welcomed Osden’s expertise in computing, AI, and big data.
Consider just these two connections that have come from the brainstorming that occurs within our team of fellow and mentors, and multiply that by 20. That is 60 new collaborative ventures between partners within and outside Africa.
This is just the start; each of these will generate new ideas, new professional contacts and friendships, and new areas of rewarding, lifelong collaboration and impact.
I’d like to think I’m a lifelong learner. FSNet-Africa certainly turned me into one. Through my amazing experience of being a mentor and being a part of Kadeghe’s team, through the cohort activities, and meeting the other fellows and mentors, I have been pushed hard.
I have learned more about impact-led research co-creation with partners in Africa, and I’ve gained global collaboration skills for online student education. Most importantly for me, I have gained the benefit of learning from African youth leaders and their approach to tackling food system transformation and global inequality.
I have a lot more to learn, but one thing is clear: if the world is to successfully transition to a sustainable future this century, we need to listen to, engage with, and learn from African thought and action leadership. Believe me, I’ve seen it in action.