Ugandan agronomist Rosemary Bulyaba is exploring how to find varieties of cowpea that are more resilient to adverse climatic conditions, can thrive in various soils types and environments, and whose leaves can be utilized as vegetables and are rich in vital nutrients such as iron and folate. Bulyaba however must also balance her research work with her role as a mother of two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl.
However, her second maternity leave has been much easier than the first one, because, while working at the Uganda Christian University (UCU), in Mukono, Uganda, she received a special grant that TWAS established in collaboration with the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Called the Seed Grant for New African Principal Investigators (SG-NAPI), it offers an unprecedented mother-friendly component called 'Scientist after Child' scheme. This scheme allows pregnant scientists and new mothers to receive extra funding to hire a lab assistant, thus obtaining reliable maternity leave support.
"Receiving the SG-NAPI was a huge help for my scientific career. I could continue my research with the aid of an assistant while staying at home and breastfeeding," she explained. "This grant has strengthened my reputation and increased my value at UCU. My career was uplifted: I was head of the department and now I am the Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences."
The SG-NAPI grant meets the needs of early-career scientists from developing countries, and, in particular, from the least developed countries (LDCs). With funding entirely from BMBF, it allows young scientists to purchase the research facilities they need to enhance their productivity. Its ‘Scientists after Child’ scheme seeks to enhance the productivity of female scientists returning to academia after maternity leave. Another component of the programme, the ‘Master of Science training grant’, allows scientists to train master's students within their research group. Bulyaba benefitted from both these components.
A mother-friendly scheme
Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) is an annual herbaceous legume originally used to feed animals, especially by smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa - hence the name cowpea. However, it is becoming increasingly relevant in human nutrition, as it is rich in protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and fiber, and low in fat content.
Bulyaba's interest in nutrition-sensitive agriculture and agronomic management practices is not recent. Her early step in science led her to study grain legumes such as cowpeas, common beans, lablab beans, and soybeans. In 2019, she earned a PhD in crop production, physiology, and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University, US, and then moved back to Uganda. Shortly thereafter, she discovered that she was expecting, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was about to begin.
"I was afraid that I would have to halt my scientific career for a while, because my husband and I already had a young daughter, who was only 1 year old at the time, to take care of. However, field and lab work are often quite demanding," she recalled.
An agronomist's life is physically intense. The fieldwork begins with land preparation and the planting of the seeds. Then weekly monitoring activity requires extra work to ensure that the plants have germinated and are growing well—otherwise a new round of sowing is needed. Sometimes insects ruin the crop, and scientists need to use pesticides to keep those at bay.
When Bulyaba was still a new staff member and a mother for the second time, she learned about a programme that would preserve her work. The former Dean of Bulyaba's faculty mentioned the SG-NAPI grant and the mother-friendly scheme. Bulyaba applied, and her maternity leave improved. With a two-year long grant covering 2022 and 2023, she could hire an assistant who supports in supervising the research activities while she is at home with her kids. This also ensures that her master's students have the support they need and prevents a gap in her scientific work.
"I have three sites to check on periodically, in Eastern Uganda, Central Uganda, and in greenhouses," Bulyaba explained. "With my students, we are now testing over 100 different genotypes, across these sites, to see which ones best adapt to these environments, under those specific conditions. It is interesting to see how plants behave under conditions that are apparently similar, but in practice different." Some of the cowpea genotypes are from Ghana, others from Makerere University, and from UCU where Bulyaba is employed.
A mother's impact on child wellbeing
The grant's impact was enormous, not only on her career. In a more relaxed mood at home, Bulyaba offered her newborn, Shaun, quality time, and the difference from the first pregnancy was evident.
"My presence at home brought several benefits to my son, who is more self-confident, assertive, and prompt from a cognitive point of view," she observed. He was breastfed for 18 months, while his sister stopped after four. In addition, Shaun, not yet 3, can count one-to-ten, recite the alphabet, identify shapes and colours, and has started speaking both his native language, Luganda, and English without having attended kindergarten yet.
The SG-NAPI grant put Bulyaba in the position to make a difference also for young scientists in her community. She hired two master’s students, Naome Aryatwijuka and Norah Akaba, whose role in this cowpea research is crucial.
Aryatwijuka, who conducts agronomic field work and experimentation, is a master’s student in agriculture research. She handles tasks such as planting the seeds, collecting the leaves, and correlating the quality and yield of the harvested crops with specific genotypes and field locations. Then Akaba steps in.
Thanks to the SG-NAPI grant, Akaba can pursue her master’s degree in human nutrition. She uses Aryatwijuka's information to select the most potentially nutritious leaves, which are naturally rich in micronutrients that are especially important for reproductive-age women. She is also involved in the preparation and development of a nutritionally dense cowpea soup for the local communities. Additionally, she is working on gathering feedback from community members regarding the quality and acceptability of the meal.
"I feel quite privileged because the SG-NAPI grant gave me the chance to hire two young women and have an impact on their education and career," Bulyaba said. "Women often face more challenges and have fewer privileges compared to men, and having a child can often so easily lead to the end of their scientific career. I do hope that both Akaba and Aryatwijuka will also pursue a PhD after this master’s experience."
"Receiving this grant was not only for me but for my students as well," she concluded.