Five questions with Prof Tebello Nyokong

As part of a new series this year, we’ll be speaking to inspiring academics, policy-makers and others on Africa’s scientific development.

This time, we speak to Prof Tebello Nyokong, one of the continent’s leading scientists, multi-award winner and often cited role model for younger generataions.

  • Question 1: The Post 2015 ‘African common position paper’ published last year highlighted science and technology as an urgent priority for the continent. Do you get the sense momentum is building on STI agenda in Africa, and what more can be done?

Prof Nyokong: The problem with science and technology development is that it is a long term programme. The funds have to be committed for years at a time. For example, the South African Research Chair Initiative is a long-term commitment of 15 years per researcher – and many more years for the government since new chairs are being created regularly.

South Africa has shown commitment for research – and I attended the World Science forum in Budapest (2011) where it was very clear that South African efforts on S&T are beginning to show rewards. Though we still have challenges, and sometimes many African countries rely mainly on funding from international organizations. This in itself is not wrong, but there has to be policy and financial commitment within each country. We cannot expect a long-term commitment from international agencies.

Thus, the problem is long-term commitment (funding) in each country. There have been lots of policies regarding research in Africa e.g. ‘ CASTAFRICA II’. Below are some of the resolutions which were agreed to related to S and T  in 1987.

  • formulate R&D programs after extensive consultation with the industrialists and organizations concerned, and take steps to ensure  that certain of these programs be the subject of contracts for co-operation funded by the industry or organization
  • promote the holding of regular meetings between researchers and industrialists, and facilitate and encourage the participation of private and parastatal industrial enterprises in research and development (R&D) activities;

Yet, I sometimes feel that the policies and resolutions are just filed and never looked at again.

  • Question 2: As a number of African economies continue to grow rapidly, and economists across the world predict more GDP and investment increases this year, how can we make sure this benefits local, African-led science and technology development?

Prof Nyokong:  I am very excited about the investment increases – and maybe this will result in more industries investing [in science]. The African Union has commitments for science and technology, but mainly in areas of Agriculture, Energy, Water and Sanitation.  In 2002 the AU set up the AU Commission with a special Department of Human Resources, Science and Technology to drive their strategic programs, and ever thus there has been a continental commitment. I have heard that some countries such as Tanzania and Mozambique are now becoming serious about science and technology. Yet, I have little direct proof of this. All the same, if this is the case, it is exciting. And I hope it is not just another policy which will be filed.

Many students in Africa have excellent theoretical scientific knowledge, but they lack the tools for research. This leaves an ‘innovation chasm’, with an insufficient amount of research directly influencing the real economy. Going from research to real products is a problem even where research is advanced. In South Africa, the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) was established for the purpose of solving the problem. However, this is the one area where I feel we need industry in addition to government to solve the problem. We need industries which are also committed to building research and development capacity in African countries.

  • Question 3: You won the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science in 2009 and are now a leading role model for women scientists across Africa. What do you think are the main barriers for African women, not just to continue their studies but also to pursue a career in science?

Prof Nyokong:  There are a number of L’Oreal-UNESCO laureates [across Africa], for example, the 2014 laureate Doctor Segenet KELEMU from Kenya. And there have been a number of L’Oreal-UNESCO laureate for life sciences in many countries including Nigeria, South Africa, now Kenya. My feeling is that in the life and biological sciences, women are making their mark all over the continent. They are pursuing their careers to the highest level especially in the biological sciences. The problem is still with the Physical Sciencesm including include Chemistry, Physics and Maths. My instinct is that this could be related to the misconception that these subjects are hard, starting right from high school. And hence ‘not for girls!!’

  • Question 4: On top of your academic work, you are also committed to mentoring younger scientists and helping them develop. In our recent workshop, 47% of attendees pointed to lack of training as the major barrier in improving the impact of African academics. Would you agree? What would you like to see to better support Africa’s future scientists?

Prof Nyokong: In South Africa, there are very few trained teachers in Science, and there is a huge  pressure to have 100% pass rate in schools. So students may be discouraged from taking subjects which are perceived to be hard, such as Maths and Science to avoid possibility of failure and falling below 100% rate.

There is also a lack in many cases due to lack of appropriate teachers, but what I have realized however that even where there are good teachers in some African Countries, there are little or no facilities. Learners know the theory, but they may not see a laboratory all of their high school life. At Rhodes University, we have a program where high school learners can use laboratories at the University, thus utilizing the country’s resources efficiently and in a joined-up manner.

  • Question 5: At the UN Conference last year, it was notable how few ‘civil society’ voices were speaking up for science in Africa. And throughout the year, we had many people refer to the lack of a ‘culture of science’ in some parts of the continent. Do you think more needs to be done to celebrate science and strengthen this scientific society?

Prof Nyokong:  Even where the science facilities, the public is weary of science. The media could and should play a huge role. The media needs headlines, but science news (especially for research) should be a story that continues constantly.  One of the things I really hope we could do is include some science and technology in popular TV programs. Here is an example, there is a program called ‘Isidingo’ in South Africa. At some stage they included a Geologist  in the program, and many young people began to be interested Geology. Why do we  keep repeating the USA style programs on TV which show gun violence etc, instead of developing our countries by mixing regular fun program on TV with some science? To me, this will be the best public education [and aid perceptions], since people watch TV regularly. If you have promote science separately, people have a mind blockage since they perceive science as hard and removed from everyday life. Earlier in my career, I used to run a program called “Chemistry in the supermarket”, where I asked learners to go through the products they use on a daily basis and check the chemistry.

View Prof Nyokong’s CV here, and read her inspiration ‘Letter to my 18 year-old self here.

Photo: African Success, 2015


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