30 women honoured for their impactful research in Africa

The winners of this year’s L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Young Talents Sub-Saharan Africa Awards included 25 PhD candidates and five post-doctoral researchers, who are spread across multiple fields of research to tackle major challenges to improve the quality of life in Africa and worldwide.

They received their awards, including funding of €10,000 (about US$10,870) to PhD students and €15,000 to postdoctoral students, at the annual ceremony hosted in Kasane, Botswana, on 9 November. They also received training ahead of the ceremony, according to a statement.

“We had informative training on leadership, negotiation, assertive communication, media and harassment. I learned a number of things I never knew and I believe will catapult my scientific career,” said Constance Chingwaru, one of the winners. She is in the second year of her PhD studies at Bindura University of Science Education, Zimbabwe.

University World News spoke to Chingwaru and four of the other winners about their research.

A focus on sustainable development

Zimbabwean entomologist Chingwaru’s research is focused on developing a novel biopesticide from Zimbabwean local plants that will be effective against fall armyworm – Spodoptera frugiperda – an invasive pest that damages more than 350 plant species, including maize.

“A fall armyworm invasion was reported in West Africa in 2016 and, up to date, it has spread to more than 38 African countries, including Zimbabwe. My research is aimed at fulfilling the attainment of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1 (no poverty) and SDG 2 (zero hunger),” said Chingwaru.

She said that, in an attempt to keep the fall armyworm at bay, farmers extensively apply synthetic pesticides which have a plethora of negative effects on human and animal health as well as the environment.

She said the objectives of her study are to establish the current methods being used by smallholder farmers in fall armyworm hotspot areas to control the worms, evaluate the efficacy of the botanical intervention under laboratory and field conditions, and assess the effect of the biopesticide on non-target species.

Chingwaru said that, at the end of the study, she wants to develop a product for Africa by Africans that will effectively reduce fall armyworm populations in maize fields.

Age is not a barrier

Another winner, Aderonke Korede (see picture above) from Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Nigeria, who is in the fourth year of her PhD programme, said she is pursuing food chemistry studies and is exploring the antioxidant health and flavour potential of ginger and turmeric spices to enhance the stability and sensory attributes of shea olein.

“Shea olein is a soft fraction of shea butter, sparsely used in food industries around the world. The reasons lie in consumers’ perceptions of its poor sensory quality and stability.

“Yet, shea olein is known to be rich in bioactive compounds … [which] react with free radicals in the body to stop the progression of oxidative stress, serving as antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumoural agents – as well as being an immune modulator.

“Therefore, we are leveraging the bioactive composition of shea olein and the antioxidant, health and flavour potentials of ginger and turmeric to bring a healthy and antioxidant-rich vegetable oil to the entire African populace,” she said.

“My key interest pursuing this research is to see outcomes transformed from laboratory into marketable products. Hence, in five years’ time, I [want to] see the transformation of shea olein into a healthy cooking oil in Nigeria and other African nations,” said the researcher.

Korede said, considering her roles at work and home as a married woman, her husband greatly encouraged and supported her financially in her science journey. This support is very vital for married women pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Being the eldest of the scientists who were honoured, Korede, who is turning 50 in February 2024, said the fact that she was acknowledged suggests to her that age is not a barrier in science, but rather what you have to offer the world.

Korede said this must encourage girls and women to be courageous and to stay focused in their pursuit of science.

Faith Njeru of Kenya (left) and Felicidade Noémia Xerinda Niquice from Mozambique, Images provided

Agricultural focus

Faith Njeru, another winner, is a Kenyan studying food security and agribusiness at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania.

She said her research is aimed at developing a cheap, effective, easy-to-use paper strip test for plant disease detection based on novel molecules obtained from the serum of camels.

The test will be used by farmers, seed companies and plant protection agencies to detect diseases early and initiate early-warning campaigns to help reduce crop loss.

“Early detection leads to less food loss, leading to food security and increased earnings for the farmers and the seed companies,” she said.

Inspired by her mom

Felicidade Noémia Xerinda Niquice, a Mozambican national at the University of Porto-Portugal, is pursuing a PhD in occupational safety and health.

She told University World News that there are only about 10 occupational doctors in Mozambique, a country with about 33 million people.

Her research focuses on the occupational risk assessment and management of three major bloodborne diseases in healthcare settings (Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV), in relation to healthcare workers at hospitals in the Inhambane province of Mozambique.

“These diseases are highly infectious and can be preventable if necessary measures are taken,” she said.

Niquice, who studied medicine as her first degree, said both Hepatitis B and HIV have a high infection burden in Mozambique. She added that, even though there hasn’t been a national study concerning the real prevalence of Hepatitis B, the World Health Organization considers Mozambique a country with high endemicity and, on the other hand, her country’s public health system neither tests nor offers treatment for Hepatitis B and C, hence the importance of her research.

Niquice said her mother has been a role model in her journey. “Both my parents are mechanical engineers, but my mom, Noémia Francisco Xerinda, is only the fourth woman in my country with this degree. I feel a lot of pride and inspiration from my mom,” she said.

School teachers drove her interest in science

Ini Adinya, a Nigerian lecturer and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, said her research cuts across mathematics, finance and computing.

She said she ventured into the sciences mid-way in high school years and her physics and mathematics teachers reinforced her interest through their teaching methods and passion for science.

But, she said, she has faced discrimination.

“One of the biggest challenges I faced in pursuing a career in science is discrimination [because I am a woman]. There are times when reactions from male counterparts seem to say: ‘What are you doing here?’ It has taken resilience and hard work to survive this, but it has been very rewarding,” said Adinya.

About her current research, she said: “I am currently investigating financial models with discontinuities in the real options framework for the valuation of investments. [It involves] determining the dynamics for the stochastic variables and appropriate numerical or analytical tools for solving models.”