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New academy leader champions the power of science

“There is good science in Africa,” said Professor Nelson Torto, the newly appointed executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, or AAS. “My only concern is that it might not be necessarily focused on the current needs and that is really something that requires debate and understanding.”

It is a concern that will likely define Torto’s footprint during his three-year contract at AAS which follows on his five years as founding CEO of the Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation.

The AAS is a pan-African organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya, which aims, according to its mission statement, “to drive sustainable development in Africa through science, technology and innovation.” To this end it draws on a membership of over 300 top scientists who provide the advisory and consultative expertise to engineer the continent’s scientific strategies and policies.

In 2015 the AAS launched the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa to overcome some of Africa’s developmental challenges. This was created in collaboration with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, or NEPAD, which, along with the African Union, is a supporter of AAS.

Knowledge and experience

Torto comes to his new position with a wealth of knowledge and experience, both as an analytical chemist and a high level manager. He replaces Professor Berhanu Abegaz who served two terms as AAS executive director. “I am lucky to be taking over from such an outstanding scholar who has positively reversed the fortunes of the academy and made it a credible partner for the African Union, NEPAD and other international organisations.”

Torto began his career as a method development chemist at the Bamangwato Concessions Ltd mine in Selebi-Phikwe, Botswana. In 1993 he entered the University of Botswana’s chemistry department as a staff development fellow, subsequently rising to the rank of associate professor.

In 2008 Torto joined Rhodes University, South Africa, as a professor in analytical chemistry and later headed the chemistry department for three years. He has a PhD in analytical chemistry from Lund University in Sweden.

To realise its stated mission the AAS Strategic Plan identifies six STI – science, technology and innovation – focus areas: climate change; health and well-being; science, technology, engineering and mathematics; water and sanitation; food security and nutritional well-being; and sustainable energy.

Torto’s appointment comes just before the current five-year plan ends next year. “It is the opportune moment to evaluate what has been achieved during the current period and also assess what Africa needs going forward as part of the background work for the next strategic plan.”

Attainable targets

Torto is unwilling to be drawn on any possible changes in focus. “Any predicted change by me at this point would be merely an assessment which might prejudice the process,” he said. “I think it will be best to get a good understanding of what AAS has achieved, look at what is needed and also the potential to access the required resources for proper execution. We need to have targets that are attainable within a reasonable time given our capability as an academy.”

Torto enjoys a high status as an analytical chemist specialising in the use of nanotechnology for the developing of colorimetric probes for diagnosis in biotechnology, health, water and the environment. No doubt this background will contribute to his ideas regarding future planning at AAS. “Nanotechnology allows us to do more with less, certainly it is an area that needs to be incorporated in the STI agenda for Africa.”

The advent of additive printing provides an opportunity for the continent according to Torto: “Africa can be part of the new shift in manufacturing through 3D printing and it all can be done in the comfort of one’s house.”

It is also a less polluting technology than those previously used in printing which fits in comfortably with the climate change agenda of the AAS, which recently initiated the CIRCLE programme together with the Association of Commonwealth Universities to provide 100 postgraduate scholarships for researchers in Africa to study the impact of climate change over a period of five years.

Women and young people in science

One objective of the AAS Strategic Plan is to “enhance the capacity of African women and youth in the sciences”.

“There are already a lot of efforts relating to that by various organisations,” said Torto, adding that AAS “needs to increase its recruitment of young affiliates and amongst those there should be a deliberate strategy to bring in the girl child. AAS also needs to aggressively ensure that women of calibre are nominated to be Fellows of the Academy.”

Looking at a broader platform Torto recommends foresight studies which as yet have not been used extensively in defining areas of research in Africa. “One would wish that the academy could also play a part in ensuring that investments in research yield outcomes that will improve lives as well as create equal opportunities for all.”

While at Rhodes University Torto forged close relationships with industry partners, particularly the South African chemical and energy company Sasol, training researchers now employed in countries all over Africa, including South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Lesotho, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

“I also played an important part in driving the triple helix in the area of analytical chemistry, both as the leader of the analytical chemistry division of the South African Chemical Institute and head of chemistry at Rhodes University.”

Showcasing the power of research

But it’s Torto’s experience as founding CEO of the Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation or BITRI that must have made him such a compelling candidate for his new job. “It was a dream for me to set up a research organisation inclusive of recruiting, defining programmes and initiating some of BITRI’s key partnerships.”

BITRI was the first research entity of its kind in Botswana. “It changed the mindset in terms of what research can achieve as well as the potential that it has to impact positively on the people’s lives,” said Torto.

For example, thanks to BITRI’s efforts the Botswana government embraced solar technology. “There is now a complete shift to move street lighting from the grid to off-grid. Further, BITRI is in its final stages of validating the Foot and Mouth Disease diagnostic kit, which will be a game changer in many aspects given that Botswana is a major player in the beef sector. BITRI has invested significantly in the area of material fabrication and characterisation, and I hope products employing electrospun fibres will be in the market soon.”

Torto’s experience working at government level will certainly stand him in good stead at AAS. “I would like to see more governments contributing towards the AAS endowment fund,” he said.

“The human resources required to drive innovative research are simply not available and thus it is important for some of the countries with smaller populations to find a way of leveraging the available resources in the continent. This could be achieved through partnering with AAS as it already enjoys support for programmes funded by international organisations including the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s Department for International Development, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

Correction: Professor Nelson Torto is the executive director of the African Academy of Sciences and not the executive director of the African Academy of Sciences' Governing Council, as was stated in the original version of this article. University World News regrets this inaccuracy.
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