Climate change fellowships – ‘A transformative experience’

“Revolutionary” and “transformative” is how Professor Philippa Ojimelukwe of Nigeria’s Michael Okpara University of Agriculture describes the impact of the Climate Impact Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement or CIRCLE programme, aimed at developing research capacity among African climate change researchers.

In a blog written at the end of the programme, Ojimelukwe says her institution has benefitted from both the fellowship programme (with four fellows selected from Michael Okpara University of Agriculture) and the Institutional Strengthening Programme. “The experience of participating in CIRCLE has been an effective and systematic capacity building mechanism to incorporate global best practices into our institutions,” writes Ojimelukwe.

She says the gap analysis – part of the Institutional Strengthening Programme – was an “eye opener” which helped the institution identify and prioritise needs, such as the development of an induction programme for new staff and creating a formal researchers’ forum, introducing a formal mentoring programme, improving researcher support, establishing a research and ethics committee, developing management training for research managers, and improving career development and continuing professional development frameworks.

The CIRCLE programme, a five year initiative that was started in 2014 by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development with an allocated £4.85 million (US$6.4 million) and is managed by the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the African Academy of Sciences, is aimed at developing skills and research results for African researchers in the field of climate change.

CIRCLE visiting fellows spend a year in another university or research organisation in Africa researching the impact of climate change in five thematic areas: energy, water, agriculture, political, health and livelihoods.

The Institutional Strengthening Programme runs alongside the fellowship programme to create a more enabling environment for returning fellows within their home institutions, thereby enhancing the long-term impact of the programme.

The Institutional Strengthening Programme is meant to enhance professional development support for early career academic staff and develop a stronger institutional framework for supporting research in reference to climate change.

Ojimelukwe says she had little confidence that her institution would be selected for the programme as it is a lesser-known institution.

“Thankfully my fears were unfounded and the CIRCLE programme has been a revolutionary experience for Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, Nigeria … The ISP [Institutional Strengthening Programme] has been transformative for our institution.”

She says despite financial constraints, they have been able to successfully implement a number of initiatives.

Another CIRCLE fellow, Dr Amon Taruvinga, a lecturer from South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, secured R2.2 million (US$157,000) in grants from South Africa’s grant-making foundation, the National Research Foundation, in 2015 from proposals inspired by his CIRCLE-funded research.

The grants include R650,000 to map commercial beekeeping areas in the Amathole district municipality of the Eastern Cape province, given that not all areas may support commercial beekeeping; R30,000 for a proposal inspired during the inception meeting for his one-year CIRCLE fellowship, which has seen the establishment of the Southern Africa Climate Change and Biodiversity Research Forum and a collaborative research project to develop an app that will provide mobile alerts for veld fires in rural areas of Zimbabwe; and R1.48 million for a project he co-authored with his home mentor Dr L Zhou and CIRCLE fellow Dr K Mopipi.

In this project the team seeks to understand indigenous knowledge and technological innovations in relation to livelihood-based handcrafts among rural women, according to a report on the African Academy of Sciences website.

Another fellow, Dr Phyllis Bernice Opare of the University of Energy and Natural Resources in Ghana, who spent part of the programme at Makerere University in Uganda, described the fellowship as “life-changing”.

Choosing to work with smallholder farmers in Ghana – among the groups most affected by climate variability – Opare writes: “In all, about 150 farmers took part in the study and they have been encouraged and challenged to begin climate-smart farms that can be used as model farms for other farmers.”

In her blog, she writes that the timing of her research was propitious since Ghana had recently experienced one of the worst dry seasons in recent history during the last Harmattan (dry season).

“This, coupled with some significant bush fires and other farming practices, has resulted in significant food shortages, particularly in local staples like cassava, cocoyam and plantain. As a result, the farmers were very interested in finding out why the climate is changing and what they can do to adapt in the face of variability.”