ARISE -African's Great Minds Assemble in Tunisia 

ARISE -African's Great Minds Assemble in Tunisia 
AAS Ececutive Director, Peggy Oti-Boateng

By Thuku Kariuki


From 4th to 6th June 2024, Hammamet, Tunisia, became a hub of intellectual exchange as 100 leading scientists from 38 African nations convened to tackle pressing issues in research and innovation. 

The conference focused on the green transition, global health, the intersection of science and higher education, and the pivotal role of scientific advancements in addressing societal development challenges.


This was all done under the auspices of ARISE, the African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence. The initiative was created by the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and receives funding from the European Union and Carnegie Corporation, among others. ARISE provides a platform for exchanges within Africa and beyond, contributing to sustainable and inclusive development, economic growth, and job creation.


The Executive Director of the Academy, Peggy Oti-Boateng, emphasized the urgent need to strengthen Africa's science base by investing in African scientists and enhancing their capacity to conduct groundbreaking research. She expanded on this, stating, "The High-level Scientific Convening for ARISE in Tunisia is a testament to our commitment to fostering a robust scientific community in Africa. By investing in our early- to mid-career researchers, we are enhancing their capabilities and fortifying the entire continent's science base,"


Panel discussions showcased prominent international luminaries, including Dr. Rafiq Hamdi from the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium; Shaofeng Hu, UNESCO's Director of the Division of Science Policy and Basic Sciences; Dr. Vanessa McBride, Science Director at the International Science Council in France; and Professor Paul Zeleza, Senior Advisor for Strategic Initiatives at Howard University in Washington, DC.


They shared their expertise in several discussions centered around the accomplishments of African scientists. Dr. Annette Uwineza from the University of Rwanda presented her work on the genomic and environmental factors influencing neurodevelopmental disorders in children from Sub-Saharan Africa. Hyacinthe Toe of Burkina Faso's Malaria Research Center discussed her work on the behaviour of insecticide-resistant Aedes aegypti for dengue and other emerging arboviruses control in West Africa. Togolese scientist Dr. Katawoura Beltako, on his side, showcased his Quantum simulations used in identifying superior energy materials.


Plenty of Kenyan talent was displayed during the event hosted at the Institut Pasteur de Tunis. The nation's ambassador to Belgium, Bitange Ndemo, a Professor of Entrepreneurship, was featured. Professor Marleen Temmerman of Aga Khan University delivered a keynote address on "Grand Challenges and Opportunities in Global Health." Moreover, Professor Stephen Agong of Mount Kenya University led a discussion on academic freedom, scientific integrity, and equitable treatment in scientific collaboration.


Additionally, Dr. Bridget Mutuma, one of the most impressive young scientists to come out of East Africa with the help of AAS and their ARISE program, presented her work on addressing plastic pollution. These materials pose significant threats to health, the environment, and economic development in many African countries.


She has designed a program to assess the distribution of micro-plastics and nano-plastics from selected cities and coastal ecosystems in Kenya. The plastics from the designated areas will be converted into low-cost carbon nanomaterials using environmentally friendly routes. This applied holistic strategy will create job opportunities and build human capacity through nanotechnology training of postgraduate students. The nanomaterials generated will also be applied to sensor technology to detect air pollutants, helping tackle critical global environmental challenges. 


Dr. Mutuma works at Nairobi University, where she is a research associate in the Chemistry department. She graduated from Kenyatta University, then received her Master's from Kangwon National University in South Korea and her PhD from South Africa's University of Witwatersrand. She sees in her future a role leading scientists in sensor technology, photo-catalysis, and solar energy conversion. They will seek to provide solutions for mitigating plastic and air pollution through innovation and infrastructure development in Africa.


ARISE supports various initiatives, often matching scientists from one location with organizations from other parts of the continent. Dr. Mutuma's neighbour, Ugandan geneticist Dr. Geoffrey Onanga, works with the Africa Rice Center in Cote D'Ivoire. He noted that drought stress and increased nitrogen fertilizer, used to boost rice production, intensify the impact of rice blast disease, posing a threat to the region's rice industry and food security. Therefore, he has designed a program to do something about it.


Dr. Onanga's plant disease resistance in a changing climate project (PDRCC) aims to combine genomic approaches to identify stable rice traits for improving rice blast resistance in drought situations under increasing nitrogen fertilizer use. Rice blast is a destructive crop disease that causes up to 100% rice yield losses. This project will generate new insights into rice blast interaction by bringing together bio-informaticians, breeders, and plant pathologists. It will also develop new, resistant breeding lines, build capacity, and broaden our collaboration, which is critical for accelerating rice breeding and ensuring rice production sustainability in the face of climate change.


Studying in Germany, Dr. Onanga earned his PhD in plant pathology at the Georg-August Universitat in Gottingen. Since then, he has worked with the International Rice Research Institute and the Africa Rice Center. His long-term goal is to use molecular biology and bioinformatic approaches to understand plant biotic and abiotic interactions better. He intends to create research expertise on rice disease mitigation in a changing climate and crop intensification systems. Dr. Onanga also wants to train young African scientists and conduct research to guide policymakers in making better crop disease management decisions.


So many other experts are involved in the ARISE program. It is hard to comprehend how many different initiatives are supported by their funding, knowledge, and incubation from their platform. The AAS continues to march forward on so many fronts. But they take great pride in what was accomplished in early June 2024 in Tunisia.


Dr. Obed Ogega, the Academy's Programme Manager, reflected on his organization's long-term goals while considering the next phase of the ARISE program. It promises to revolutionise Africa's research and innovation landscape, strengthening research capacities across disciplines while catalysing scientific exchanges within Africa and the rest of the world. 


Dr. Ogega opines, "Our goal is to support the next generation of African research leaders that will contribute to the delivery of the 'Africa We Want', as envisioned in African Union Agenda 2063. Our event has showcased the remarkable talent of our researchers, whose work ranges from renewable energy solutions and climate change adaptation to food security and health innovations. These researchers are addressing some of the most pressing issues African communities face today."


With the support of the African Academy of Sciences and their ARISE initiative, young African scientists will continue to address the continent's challenges and lead the rest of the world in creating a healthy, innovative, and abundant world for future generations.