Five-university partnership to focus on global challenges

A new partnership involving North Carolina State University in the United States and four others in Africa seeks to engage students at the institutions in ‘vigorous research’ to find solutions to persistent global challenges such as food shortages, health challenges and the effects of climate change.

The partnership, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with initial support of US$14 million, teams North Carolina State University with Makerere University, Gulu University and Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda, and Mount Kenya University in Kenya.

Representatives from the five institutions of higher learning converged at Makerere University recently to discuss implementation, including the feasibility of drawing up joint research projects, grant applications and student exchange.

Innovative and relevant research

Highlighting the potential impact of the partnership, Professor Barnabas Nawangwe, vice-chancellor of Makerere University, said universities and institutions of higher learning had a duty to society to pull off innovative and relevant research that can improve the plight of communities.

Referring to the African population, currently estimated at 1.216 billion and projected to more than double by an additional 1.3 billion by 2050, Nawangwe said: “Our universities need to think of sustainable and smarter ways to solve the challenges of hunger and disease and deforestation that are a result of this bulging population.

“We have a duty to ensure that this population does not only survive but thrive. We have to give it enough food and at the same time alternatives… alternative fuel so it stops diminishing forests.”

Universities’ responsibility

He said universities had a “huge responsibility” to move the continent out of poverty and called the partnership an “immense opportunity” to achieve it.

“Africa can only achieve middle-income status and soar higher if its universities and education are redirected to solve the continent’s needs,” said Nawangwe at the close of the meeting.

Bailian Li, senior vice provost at North Carolina State University and professor of forestry at the institution, said the partnership, which focuses on improving food security, global public health, community engagement and solutions to climate change impacts, will focus on increasing mobility of staff and students to strengthen regional level training by leveraging joint graduate programmes.

He said the universities will work to develop improved food varieties, which are disease-resistant and drought-tolerant to counter pests and longer droughts on the continent.

Broader scope

Li said researchers from North Carolina State University are already working with Ugandan researchers at the country’s National Agricultural Research Organisation to develop sweet potato hybrids that are higher yielding and disease-tolerant. Thus, the new partnership will broaden their scope, he said.

The universities will also conduct joint research aimed at improving food storage, value addition, and nutrition.

Gertrude Kiwanuka, associate professor and dean of the faculty of medicine at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, welcomed the partnership, which she said would help to deal with a myriad economic, behavioural and environmental challenges on the continent.

She said the partnership will help to improve nutrition, for example, in south western Uganda, which is considered a food basket for the country but posts the highest cases of malnourished children. “Our research should be able to inform better eating practices,” she said.

Professor Peter Wanderi, principal in charge of corporate affairs at Mount Kenya University, said the partnership would create a “one stop centre” to identify challenges affecting populations on the continent and provide solutions.

All five universities prioritise research and will work to generate knowledge which can transform society, said Wanderi.

“We need to transform the way we teach and carry out research to find solutions that can positively impact our societies. This [partnership] is the way to start,” he said.