FSNet-Africa recently had the opportunity to showcase its unique framework and fellowship programme on a global stage – the World Food Prize Foundation’s (WFP) 2022 Norman E. Borlaug International Dialogue.
On 18 October 2022, FSNet-Africa, which is based at the University of Pretoria, took up the prestigious invitation to share its work with over 750 in-person and over 1 000 online attendees at the 2022 Borlaug Dialogue. It was the first day of the official programme, and the FSNet-Africa breakout session kicked off proceedings for the three-day conference.
Taking place annually in Des Moines, Iowa (with the exception of virtual meetings during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic), the Borlaug Dialogue – as it is informally known – brings together people from around the world to address issues pertaining to global food security and nutrition. Its namesake was, WFP founder and 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Dr Norman E Borlaug.
In Des Moines for the prestigious event were members of the FSNet-Africa leadership and network coordination teams, one fellow, and a mentor, with another fellow joining in online. The representatives were, respectively:
- Professor Frans Swanepoel, FSNet-Africa director and principal investigator, University of Pretoria (UP)
- Professor Claire Quinn, FSNet-Africa co-director and mentor, University of Leeds
- Dr Elizabeth Mkandawire, FSNet-Africa network and research manager, UP
- Dr Njongenhle Nyoni, FSNet-Africa engagement and liaison manager, Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN)
- Dr Innocensia John, FSNet-Africa research fellow, University of Dar Es Salaam
- Dr Gloria Essifile, FSNet-Africa research mentor, University of Ghana
- Dr Sera Gondwe, FSNet-Africa research fellow, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Professor Julian May, holder of the UNESCO chair in the African Food System and director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, joined the session virtually, to provide an overview of the FSNet-Africa framework for food systems transformation. Professor Richard Mkandawire, director of the Michigan State University’s Alliance for African Partnerships’ Africa Office, served as facilitator, alongside Professor Swanepoel.
Dr Mkandawire, who manages networks and research at FSNet-Africa, unpacked the initiative’s unique framework. There are, she explained, three key outcomes the FSNet-Africa team are hoping to achieve through the fellowship. These are, said Mkandawire:
- To conduct research that helps solve persistent research challenges. “What we want to do is move beyond research that is [simply] relevant, to research that results in actionable solutions and – ultimately – results in impact.”
- To build the next generation of African scientists. “We want to create a cohort of research leaders who have the capacity to conduct transdisciplinary research.”
- To build networks that can lead to sustainable and equitable partnerships. “… not just across Africa, but between Africa and the world, across disciplines, across career phases, and – most importantly – between academia and society.”
Mkandawire explained that to realise these outcomes, the FSNet-Africa team developed an integrated, capacity development and research implementation model, where the timing of interventions is aligned with the research implementation life cycle.
Following from these desired outcomes are five skills the FSNet-Africa team aim to embed in their fellows. These are project management, responsible research, research methods, research impact, and research communication. To achieve this, fellows undergo a six-part intervention process which includes attending summer schools at UP and in the UK, a focus on science communication, a stakeholder engagement dialogue and writing workshop.
‘Heart and core’
But, noted Mkandawire, it is not just the framework and training that makes FSNet-Africa what it is.
“What’s key to [the FSNet-Africa model] is the way we structure our research teams,” she said. “The heart and core of the research are our research fellows – they drive the research direction.”
These fellows (of which there are currently 20, spanning six countries), are supported by two mentors: one from an African institution and another from the University of Leeds, which is a lead partner with UP and FANRPAN. Additionally, the fellows receive the support of a UP host whose role is to expand the fellow’s network at the Pretoria institution. However, these hosts often extend their support to the fellow’s research as well.
The mentors and hosts bring with them diverse experience, allowing for networks to be built across career phases. Furthermore, the African mentor is based at a different institution to that of the fellow, resulting in strengthened intra-Africa networks, while international networks are expanded through the UK mentorship and network.
The final aspect of the FSNet-Africa framework that sets it apart from many other fellowship programmes is, Mkandawire explained, the transdisciplinarity of each research team (i.e., mentors, host and fellow): with each research team housing at least five different disciplines, the FSNet-Africa framework enables boundary-spanning partnerships that can be harnessed to identify and implement climate-smart, nutrition-sensitive, and poverty-reducing solutions for food and nutrition security.
Author: Carla Bernardo