How African researchers secure the future of their continent

Making the world a better place: 12 women – 12 ideas: Africa’s strong women: how researcher Fiona Moejes is making our world a better place

Tuesday, 04.10.2022, 15:43

In Africa, women still face major difficulties in pursuing a career in science. At the Mawazo Institute in Nairobi, experts mentor young pioneers in disciplines previously dominated by men. A project not without obstacles.

The most important

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  • Getting married, having children, taking care of a family: especially for women in Africa it is difficult to break out of old role models
  • At the Institute of Ideas in Kenya, fellows learn to profile themselves in academia with specialist knowledge, imagination and guts
  • Three stories that encourage and show that equality is possible there too

A breeze from the Indian Ocean blows onto the beach, her dreadlocks and flapping flipcharts tangled. Fiona Moejes raises her voice to drown out the surf on Watamu’s Turtle Bay Beach, nearly 600 kilometers southeast of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. “Let’s talk about sustainability,” she calls out to the 25 young researchers who sit in front of her on deck chairs under palm trees, barefoot in the white sand.

“What do we want to tackle today?” asks Moejes. “Don’t use more resources than necessary,” one woman shouts. “Does that mean specific?” asks Moejes. “No overfishing.” Fiona Moejes nods. Here, on the coast of Kenya, she grew up and discovered her love for the sea and everything that lives in it. An octopus squirms from her thigh to her knee, tattooed into her skin forever.

Fiona Moejes, 33, marine biologist, conducts research into the influence of algae on sea quality, among other things. Over the past ten years she has traveled to Ireland, Germany and the Comoros northwest of Madagascar. On this September day, she leads the “Summer School” in her home country. It was mainly women who came, young scientists from Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda. They are usually a few feet away in a hotel seminar room. Today, however, they are discussing in the open air.

“Improving the world: 12 women, 12 ideas”

BurdaForward is one of three German recipients of a scholarship for constructive journalism. As part of the international project “Solutions Journalism Accelerator”, BurdaForward will carry out 12 multimedia productions from September 2022 to August 2023 together with the renowned reporting agency “Zeitenspiegel” and publish them on its websites FOCUS Online, Bunte.de and Chip.de. The series entitled “Making the world a better place: 12 women, 12 ideas” focuses on the work of women scientists from the South. This project was funded by the European Journalism Center through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Some of them are fellows of the Mawazo Institute, which Moejes has been running for a year. “Mawazo” is Swahili, the national language in Kenya. Translated, the word means “thought” or “idea”. Moejes says: “Traditionally, mawazo has a negative connotation; Men use the phrase to accuse women of supposedly confused thoughts.” Instead, she associates it with ingenuity and the courage to look for solutions. There is plenty to do: famine, disease, environmental disasters kill people. money can help. But to use it properly, you need experts.

Mawazo Institute in Kenya wants to help women achieve more equality

About 1.4 billion people live in Africa, about 17.5 percent of the world’s population. But less than one percent of global research literature is published on the continent. And hardly any female scientists are involved in the few studies. Agricultural sciences, engineering, mathematics and medicine: male domains. One consequence: women remain excluded from important economic or political decisions. That is not only unfair, Moejes believes, the lack of equality also prevents Africa from fully exploiting its intellectual potential.

African academics are not lacking in imagination, expertise and inquiring minds. You don’t have access to the global scientific community. Workshops in Europe, Asia or the US? Traveling to international conferences? Unaffordable for most. Some young scientists are scraping money from their own bank accounts to conduct experiments. Some are faced with the question: Do I buy chemicals for the lab or clothes for the child? “Women naturally choose the latter,” says Moejes. Sometimes traditions become obstacles, even today. Moejes knows what she’s talking about.

Mawazo Institute offers support to female researchers

Her ex-boyfriend was at odds with her doctorate, perhaps because he felt inferior to his educated partner. Friends and family expected her to marry early and have children. Career instead of children? Still no conflict-free project in Kenya, despite the efforts of women like Moejes. Now she lives in a modern relationship. Her husband, a freelance photographer, has moved with her several times when the job required it. As head of Mawazo, she travels to Nairobi once a month. During this time, her husband takes care of their two small daughters. Fiona Moejes has found her niche. Now she wants as many colleagues as possible to follow.

At the Mawazo Institute, female researchers learn how to publish results in respected journals, assert themselves in political and scientific networks and apply for funding. Resources, communication, visibility. It’s all about this. The grantees receive several thousand euros, financed by sponsors and foreign foundations. About two hundred young female researchers apply every year. So far, 50 women from East Africa have benefited from the program: agricultural scientists, biotechnologists, chemists, engineers and physicists.

Fiona Moejes wants to ensure more global employee participation

Little at first glance. But the creators of Mawazo are not about mass. They believe that individuals can make a difference too – when African perspectives are heard in global organizations. In the coming years, Fiona Moejes’ team aims to help women across the continent have a say in the future of their country and the planet.

A day after the discussion on the beach: Marylin Ronoh sits on a chair in front of the seminar room. The break is coming to an end. Inside, the first keyboards clatter again, but her daughter doesn’t want to let her go just yet. She is 15 months old, her name is Thando, Swahili for “love”, and she pulls on mother’s colorful floral dress. “Mom,” Thando shouts. She just breastfed them. Finally, the assistant turns the corner, takes the little girl from her and shortly after, Thando falls asleep. Without childcare, her mother would not be able to complete the two-week course.

Marilyn Ronoh, 35, mathematician, was one of the first female scientists to graduate from the Mawazo program. That was in 2017, shortly after the institute was founded. Now she is a mentor and trains young colleagues. In the summer school they learn, among other things, the Python programming language, which is used to set up websites and analyze data.

She conjures up formulas and mathematical functions on the flipchart, her colleagues put their heads together and follow the seemingly endless columns of numbers that flicker on monitors. What reminds outsiders of the specialty of unworldly nerds in the ivory tower is a piece of the puzzle towards a more livable Africa. Python is a foundation for mathematical models and is intended to help young researchers process information.

Students and scholarship students need to get rid of their fear of science

Ronoh himself works a lot with statistics. She encourages young schoolgirls to lose their fear of science. “My research at the University of Nairobi focuses on understanding the dynamics of HIV transmission,” says Marylin Ronoh. She uses mathematical models to investigate the effects of therapies, tests and education campaigns on the spread of the immune deficiency disease. She only worked when both children were asleep. “I filled out funding applications at night, did research at night, and wrote my dissertation at night.”

Nearly 600 kilometers northwest of the seminar room in Watamu, Lilian Kong’ani sits at the desk of a co-working space on the tenth floor of a high-rise building in Nairobi. From here, the view stretches across the capital, all the way to Riverside Drive. From here, Mawazo’s employees organize workshops for young scientists. Lilian Kong’ani is one of them. She is about to meet with the program director to talk to her about her scholarship.

Lilian Kong’ani grew up in a village near the equator. Daily life on the land, as many Kenyans experience. Women carry jerry cans from the water points to the huts. Women carry firewood from the forest. Men have responsibilities. Kong’ani’s mother struggled to raise her and the other nine siblings. The father, a teacher, married two other women and had a total of 27 children.

How a single mother got her doctorate

There are better starting conditions. But Kong’ani was ambitious, a good student. It bothers her early on that forests in her area are disappearing, rivers are polluted and the air is polluted. She wanted to avoid that, she wanted to study, something with nature conservation. September 23, 2022: The University of Nairobi awards Lilian Kong’ani a PhD in Climate Science and Environmental Management. A first in her family. Kong’ani is 36 years old today. It took a little longer for her to get this title, as a single parent she had to take care of her son and shows that women still have social barriers to overcome. She wrote her dissertation on climate change, renewable energy sources and the resulting conflicts.

Kenya aims to reduce its greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2035 and to generate electricity mainly from geothermal energy. In Olkaria, more than two hours’ drive northwest of Nairobi, a geothermal power plant is already supplying people with electricity. Lilian Kong’ani emphasizes the importance of such projects. But she also says, “Local communities are often displaced for the construction of these factories.” Such contradictions can be resolved at the negotiating table and there should be more women at the table. “We can no longer afford to be restrained.”

Lilian Kong’ani is miles away from living like a cricket in the kitchen. Her twelve-year-old offspring now attend boarding school and she is a guest at international conferences, most recently in China and Germany. “I want to change the world a little bit with my work.”

Mawazo leader explains how many thoughts lead to solutions

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