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16 October 2017

TWAS-Elsevier award honours sustainability research

A new TWAS-Elsevier Foundation award honours researchers from Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria – all of them advancing sustainability science in their home countries. One winning researcher has been successfully testing a new fishing technology that improves the fishing trade for Kenyan citizens.

Climate change has been a growing challenge for many of people living around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. Hundreds of thousands of them depend on herding cattle and goats, but as the area has become dryer, forage plants for livestock have become increasingly scarce.

The population living around Lake Turkana – more than 500,000 people in all – needed a new source of food and income. The obvious choice was the lake itself, and with the Kenyan government’s encouragement, more people in the region turned to fishing.

But without a strong fishing tradition, they improvised as well as they could by using the beach for their fish-drying practices. They started drying their day’s catch on piles of leaves, but that left the fish exposed to sand, beetles and disease-causing microbes and rendered as much as 30% to 40% of the catch unusable.

So, Oscar Donde, a hydrobiologist from Kenya, collaborating with researchers from Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, came to help – and for this work, he has won a new award from the Elsevier Foundation and TWAS. 

Donde and the other researchers brought a new technology that would help them dry more fish while also losing fewer to the harsh environmental conditions. Their research is now helping people of the region adapt to climate change and build a new, more sustainable way to live.

For his work, Donde became one of five winners of the first-ever TWAS-Elsevier Foundation Sustainability Case Studies Competition. The contest recognises five early-career researchers for case studies focused on research that could help solve some of the global South’s most difficult sustainability challenges, showing how scientists can contribute to prosperity and help their home countries achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

“Our goal with the competition was to not only celebrate inspiring sustainability scientists, but to spur thinking within research communities in low income countries about the impact that their research—no matter how focused--can have on improving livelihoods, health and their environments.” noted Ylann Schemm, Director of the Elsevier Foundation.

"The research being done by these young African scientists is extremely promising," said TWAS Executive Director Romain Murenzi. "They are addressing specific human challenges with sustainable solutions. That creates an immediate value, but it also reinforces the rising awareness of sustainable science in the developing world. This is a very positive benefit of our partnership with the Elsevier Foundation."

The competition was open to PhD students supported by TWAS and the Organization for Women in Science in the Developing World (OWSD). It asked them to write and submit a case study that reflected on the how their research contributes to the global effort to build a sustainable world. All five winners are from Africa, and they each received a $1,000 prize and financial support to attend the first TWAS Young Affiliates Network Conference, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in August.

The five 2017 winning case studies focus on food security, energy, climate change, water and sanitation, and green chemistry. Research ranged from the impact of health education on reducing malnutrition to how the shift to sustainable practices might influence cancer rates.

Donde, who is Kenyan, is currently based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) under a CAS-TWAS President's PhD Fellowship. He's working with the lake restoration research team at the CAS Institute of Hydrobiology of the University of Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing. He plans to return to Kenya when his PhD work is done to carry on his fisheries research full-time there and help his own community continue to develop new ways to use the lake.

Donde's winning research used a new technology, called solar driers – wooden platforms with a thin translucent covering that let the sun dry freshly caught fish while keeping the sand from the beach out. They also make the heat more intense, killing beetles looking for an easy meal. The devices are simple but innovative – and Donde's research in Kenya marked one of the first times they've ever been put to the test.

The research proved successful: For people who used them, less than 20% of the fish spoiled instead of 30-40%. The technology also greatly improved the quality of fish on average, keeping them more fresh and helping the fishermen fetch better prices on the market. There is now hope that, as trials continue, the solar driers could become a tool used routinely by people around the lake, as rumours of its success have spread along the lakeshore communities.

Donde recalled that the few fishermen who received the technology met it with appreciation and excitement, and those who hadn’t had a chance to try it became jealous. “Now,” he said, “the fishermen in all the beaches around the lake are requesting for more driers.”

Donde said the contest and its accompanying prize money came at just the right time. It enabled him to attend the international conference of TYAN – the TWAS Young Affilaites Network – in Rio de Janeiro, allowing him to share his story with interested scientists from all over the world.

“I will be able to invite funders to help us make these driers available to every fisherman around Lake Turkana,” he said. “It will also be a way to share knowledge (at the TYAN conference) and perhaps learn about potential improvements to the technology.”

The other winners of the competition are:

- Susan Nyasimi of Kenya won for her study to determine the nutritional health status of children in Homabay County, Kenya. She’s attempting to demonstrate the impact of promoting health education in latrine use, water, sanitation and hygiene interventions in reducing childhood malnutrition.

Human waste disposal, water management and food-handling practices all play a key role in preventing malnutrition because unclean food can cause diarrheal diseases, which keeps the body from absorbing needed nutrients. In Homabay County, most families don’t have access to clean water and about 30% don’t have access to latrines.

- Brice Landry Koloko of Cameroon won for his research seeking to help lower cancer rates in his home country as it adapts to climate change. For example, batteries for electric cars or solar power systems could increase exposure to metals such as nickel or cadmium which could in turn increase cancer risk.

His research is aiming to determine how biologists can participate in the renewable energy revolution. For example, can they gauge how new pollutants may raise the risk of cancer? And how would a decrease in deforestation increase the availability of medicinal plants to researchers seeking new cancer treatments?

- Rahiel Abraha of Ethiopia won for her work exploring how young female farmers, through new produce production methods, improve on sustainable practices and nutrition in Ethiopia’s drought-prone areas.

Her goal is to help women in agriculture, which is the leading sector for growth and development in Ethiopia. For example, she is exploring the expansion of home-based gardening, which so far is not adequately sustainable to help Ethiopian communities prosper. She is also exploring how to empower young women farmers in their decision-making to help improve the production of fruits and vegetables, and thus their local economies.

- Abiola Ezekiel Taiwo of Nigeria won for his work exploring environmentally friendly methods for obtaining of vanillin, a chemical that provides the main flavor of vanilla.

His research will explore how to reduce the cost of producing vanillin, and how to develop green methods for separating the chemical from vanilla plants. He aims to use green technologies to address the problem, such as the use of new solvents that don't contribute to pollution.

Sean Treacy

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