Author Archives: Valerian Aloo

Strengthening the capacity of African women scientists


Over the years, the ABCF program has supported several researchers who have now grown into positions of influence within their institutions. This week we feature two scientists from the national research organizations and are doing great things for agricultural development.

Nina Wambiji, Kenya

As the assistant director of the fisheries program at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) headquarters based in Mombasa, Kenya, Nina Wambiji is the epitome of a scientist who has grown in leaps and bounds. 

As a young researcher, Wambiji was able to secure the African Women in Agricultural Research for Development (AWARD) fellowship and advanced science training placement at BecA-ILRI Hub with the support from the ABCF program. The opportunity gave her the chance to conduct her research on the application of next-generation sequencing approaches to assess the genetic diversity of Siganus (rabbit fish) species from Kenya.  Her interest to work on this species of fish also called tafi by the coastal people is because it has no scales or bones which makes it easy to prepare and eat. At the time of doing this research, there was no data on rabbit fish.

Dr. Wambiji (left) and Dr. Mukhebi, the Deputy Director of AWARD at a previous seminar held at the BecA-ILRI Hub.

She says, “If we are to identify the cause of dwindling populations beyond overfishing it is important that we also understand the fish physiology and genetics, their movements as well as the effects of climate change”.

From this work, she was able to successfully barcode different Siganus species caught along the Kenyan coast. In addition to acquiring molecular biology skills, Wambiji was also able to gain skills in research communication and public speaking which has greatly helped her in her line of work where she engages various stakeholders. In addition, she supervises undergraduate students taking up coastal and marine sciences subjects. She continues to apply the molecular techniques of extracting and processing of total RNA, cDNA synthesis, DNA, gene expression analysis, cloning procedures, sequence analysis through partnering with colleagues attached to molecular laboratories. 

Wambiji is responsible for contributing to the development of the research agenda of KMFRI Strategic plan by contributing to research knowledge, data and projections needed for strategic planning to make KMFRI undertake research as per her mandate and Strategic Plan. She also manages research programs by coordinating proposal developments for research work, planning research teams, coordinating research reporting and reviewing research performance. 

As a senior scientist, her research areas are on fisheries biology and ecology, stock assessment, fish genetics and impacts of fishing gears on marine mammals. She is also the Country Coordinator for the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association, an organization that aims to promote the educational, scientific and technological development of marine sciences throughout the Western Indian Ocean.

Barberine Assongo, Cameroon

Barberine Silatsa Assongo grew up in a small village along the Cameroonian coastal region where her family farmed cacao and maize. Her love for farm animals made the dream of becoming a veterinarian. But as fate would have it, circumstances could not allow Assongo to enroll in the only school of veterinary medicine. Instead, she enrolled for a course in biochemistry at a local university in Cameroon. 

While doing her Ph.D. at the University of Dschang, West Cameroon, Assongo understood her need to gain access to a well-established laboratory where she could do her research. She came across the ABCF fellowship call during her search for scholarships and successfully put in her application.

At BecA-ILRI Hub, Assongo investigated ticks and tick-borne diseases among the cattle population in Cameroon. Within the context of global warming and conflicts that trigger livestock movements and disease dissemination across the region, her aim was to evaluate the current epidemiological status of ticks and tick-borne diseases of cattle in Cameroon with a goal of assembling baseline data and evaluating the risk of disease outbreaks.

She established that Rhipicephalus microplus (Asian blue tick), one of the most important ectoparasites and livestock disease vectors globally, is now present in Cameroon. This species is known to invade and displace endemic species of the same genus, can transmit a broad range of parasites as well as develop resistance against acaricides.  

Since its introduction in West Africa a decade ago, R. microplus has been reported in Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo, Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria with potentially far-reaching adverse impacts on the livestock sector in the region. Because of its strategic location in the central Africa region, Cameroon plays a pivotal role in livestock trade both within the region and between Central Africa and West Africa. The study has highlighted the future importance of the control of R. microplus in Africa and illustrates just how rapidly it is spreading.

Her research findings have already been published in Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases.

Assongo is now back at the University of Dschang as an assistant lecturer as well as a researcher.  She continues to acknowledge BecA’s role in helping her grow and reiterates that she would like to be the ‘Tick Woman’ who is significantly involved within the community of African scientists that safeguard the livestock sector in Africa. She is also very vocal in her gratitude to BecA ILRI Hub and the opportunities she has been able to get along the way. 

“The program helped improve my communication skills, I won a prize for the best oral presentation at the International Congress on Tropical Veterinary Medicine in Buenos Aires in 2018. Thanks to BecA’s ABCF seminar series”.

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‘Tell the world about your research’ scientists at BecA-ILRI Hub urged

Roger Pelle, BecA-ILRI Hub principal scientist stresses a point during the Science Communication workshop

Roger Pelle, BecA-ILRI Hub principal scientist stresses a point during the Science Communication workshop

Communicating research findings to the general public is increasingly becoming a necessary part of being a scientist. However, the skills to do this are not intuitive to scientists, who have been trained in research methodologies, analytical skills, and the ability to communicate with other scientists. This hurdle is one that the team at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa – International Livestock Research Institute Hub (BecA-ILRI) Hub sought to overcome as they underwent an intensive science communication course.

‘We have a lot of knowledge in the labs but we don’t get it out for people to appreciate and accept’ said Appoliniare Djikeng, the BecA-ILRI Hub director, at the start of the two-day workshop conducted by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter.

Djikeng acknowledged that ineffective outreach could be a contributing factor to researchers not attracting funding from national budgets. ‘We have not made the case for policy makers to appreciate that what we are doing is useful to them’, he said.

During the training that took place on June 28 and 29 at ILRI’s Nairobi campus, the BecA-ILRI Hub team was joined by researchers from the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) working on the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA) project. While giving an overview of the VIRCA project, field implementing coordinator Hannington Obiero remarked that effective communication is key to the project’s success.

‘We are here to acquire the communication skills needed to complement VIRCA’s research and ensure that our findings are adopted by the end-user’ said Obiero.

Margaret Karembu, Director ISAAA AfriCenter, thanked the researchers for taking time out of their busy schedules to attend the training, stating that it was a testament to their commitment to communicating effectively with all their audiences. She lauded their passion for seeking solutions to help African farmers and encouraged them to ensure that their work was well communicated and impacted the very people they work hard for.

The course familiarized participants with various strategies to engage policy makers, the media and the public at large. At the end of the training, participants had learnt how to identify their audiences and develop audience-specific messages.Roger Pelle, a Principal Scientist at the BecA-Hub appreciated the participatory approach to the training which included practical sessions on the use social media for science communication and mock media interviews.

Ugandan scientist awarded for research on ‘orphan crop’ yam

When she chose to spend her sabbatical in 2014 conducting research at the BecA-ILRI Hub, Jacinta Akol from the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda had no idea that this research would win her international awards.

Jacinta Akol receives the ‘Pat Coursey’ award from Keith Tomlins, president of the International Society for Tropical Root Crops (ISTRC). Looking on is Claude Fauqet, co-founder of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21 Century (GCP2) (photo: WCRTC)

Jacinta Akol receives the ‘Pat Coursey’ award from Keith Tomlins, president of the International Society for Tropical Root Crops (ISTRC). Looking on is Claude Fauqet, co-founder of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21 Century (GCP2) (photo: WCRTC)

During the First World Congress on Root and Tuber Crops (RTCs) meeting that took place in China from 18–22 January 2016, Akol was awarded the Pat Coursey prize in recognition of her contribution to research on yams in Uganda.

The research done on this under-studied, underutilized food crop by Akol through an Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund fellowship. Akol reiterated the impact of the fellowship at the BecA-ILRI Hub in defining her scientific goals and giving her career more focus.

‘While at the Hub, I was able to sharpen my skills in networking, adoption of modern scientific techniques and most importantly effective communication,’ said Akol. ‘This has really boosted my confidence and profile as a scientist’ she added.

Akol stated that the BecA-ILRI Hub is an extremely significant investment in raising agricultural research in the region.

‘At the BecA-ILRI Hub, science leaders who will improve the face of agriculture in Africa are being created,’ she said. ‘It is important that African governments support such organizations which exist to support our national agricultural research systems,’ she added.

Root and tuber crops, including yams, cassava, sweet potato, potato, cocoyams and other root crops are important to agriculture and food security of more than 100 countries. In Uganda, yam is increasingly gaining importance as a source of income for smaller holder farmers.

The RTCs congress aims at raising awareness of the importance of the RTCs in the world. It reviews scientific progress; identifies new opportunities; and sets priorities to tackle challenges including finding the resources to support research and development in areas where it is currently inadequate or lacking.

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About the Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund

The Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF), managed by the BecA-ILRI Hub, provides fellowships to scientists and graduate students from African national agricultural research systems to undertake biosciences research-for-development projects at the BecA-ILRI Hub. The ABCF fellowship program develops capacity for agricultural biosciences research in Africa; supports research projects that ultimately contribute towards increasing food and nutritional security or food safety in Africa; and facilitates access to cutting-edge research facilities by African researchers.