The African Academy of Sciences and Royal Society announce the African recipients of £25M FLAIR scheme

04 April 2019

African scientists drawn from across the continent gathered in Naivasha from 4 to 5 April 2019, hosted by The African Academy of Sciences (The AAS), to celebrate the start of their 2-year FLAIR research fellowships. FLAIR (Future Leaders – African Independent Research) is a programme of The AAS and Royal Society, with support from the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). It is designed to help talented early-career researchers, whose science is focused on the needs of the continent, establish independent careers in African institutions and ultimately, their own research groups. Up to 30 FLAIR fellowships will be awarded in 2019.

The academies also announced the opening of the next round of FLAIR applications, closing on 15 May 2019. This year the academies want to encourage more applications from under-represented countries, particularly Francophone and Lusophone countries. Find more details about eligibility and how to apply.

The 2019 FLAIR funded scientists were selected from a competitive pool of more than 700 applicants. Their research is diverse, ranging from providing renewable energy solutions and addressing climate change, to tackling food security and targeting health and environmental problems that are most acute for people living in African countries.

Thanks to the FLAIR scheme, some of the scientists are returning to the continent from countries such as the UK and USA to continue their careers in African institutions. This is an important part of the programme – attracting scientists back from the high income countries where they have completed their postdoctoral training so that they can play a part in building the research infrastructure at home. To keep improving its scientific output, Africa needs to pay urgent attention to growing and retaining its scientific talent and FLAIR is one of a number of initiatives through which the AAS is tackling this issue. 

FLAIR continues the Royal Society’s support of science in Africa. Our programmes are synonymous with excellence in science and our grants programmes play an important role in nurturing the next generation of researchers who are the scientific leaders of tomorrow.

Professor Felix Dapare Dakora, President of the African Academy of Sciences, says, “The AAS welcomes the exceptional FLAIR grantees to its postdoctoral family. We recognise that well-planned postdoctoral programmes are critical in promoting scientific and research excellence and leadership in Africa and so want to be catalytic in inspiring African institutions to critically think about the role of and defining postdoctoral programmes that suit their needs and purpose and can be instrumental in driving socio-economic development on the continent.”

Dr Judy Omumbo, Programme Manager, Affiliates and Postdoctoral Programmes, says, “We look forward to welcoming the FLAIR grantees to the community of AAS postdoctoral fellows. FLAIR  grantees will have access to AAS’ wider programme of support to develop them as independent research leaders including leadership, entrepreneurship and media,science communication and public engagement training, a mentorship scheme with internationally recognized mentors, proposal writing workshops, Open Access Publishing (no fees), via AAS Open Research and networking opportunities both regionally and with the UK and to develop regional and international collaborations.”

Professor Richard Catlow, Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, says, “I’d like to offer the Royal Society’s warmest congratulations to our first intake of FLAIR fellows. These scientists represent the next generation of leading African scientists, and we are incredibly proud to be part of a programme that is investing in them at such a crucial point in their careers. 

“Fostering science and innovation for social benefit and prosperity is key to the wellbeing of any society, and investing in Africa’s scientific talent holds the greatest potential to tackle global challenges and improve quality of life.”

The first confirmed FLAIR fellows, their nationalities and institutions to be announced are: 

Anita Etale, Rwandan, University of Witwatersrand (South Africa)
Etale is developing nanomaterials to purify drinking water used by low income communities, often contaminated by chemical elements such as mercury and arsenic.

Gift Mehlana, Zimbabwean, Midlands State University (Zimbabwe)
Mehlana is working on technology to capture CO2 and convert it to other useful chemicals, such as formic acid and methanol, addressing environmental concerns and providing organic starting materials for the chemical industry in countries devoid of fossil oil resources. 

Christopher Trisos, South African, University of Cape Town (South Africa)
Africa is projected to have as many as 43 million more people pushed in to extreme poverty due to climate change by 2030. Trisos is working on forecasting climate change in Africa and his research will be shared online as free, interactive maps. 

Dyllon Randall, South African, University of Cape Town (South Africa)
The sanitation services of many African countries are in a phase of development, which itself is an opportunity to avoid repeating mistakes, curbing the wasteful practices currently facing many developed countries. Heeding this, Randall is working on novel sanitation technologies that would allow for the recovery of valuable resources from human urine.

Oluwaseyi Shorinola, Nigerian, International Livestock Research Institute (Kenya)
In less than forty years Africa will have an additional 1.3 billion people to feed, of whom half will be living in urban areas where demands for wheat (already the crop in highest demand) will only increase. Shorinola’s research focuses on using genetics to improve the yield and quality of wheat production in East Africa. 

Lenine Liebenberg, South African, Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (South Africa)
Infection of sexually-transmitted HIV is aided by breaks in the genital mucosal barrier that occur during sex. Liebenberg is researching the genital microbiome and indicators of inflammation of couples having had recent sex. 

Dorit Hockman, South African, University of Cape Town (South Africa)
As the brain matures, different genes switch on and off to affect developmental change. In developing countries, like South Africa, diseases such as tuberculosis that affect the brain are dependent on these maturity-based genetic changes. Hockman’s research looks at the activation of medically relevant genes over the course of children’s lives.

Joseph Raimondo, South African, University of Cape Town (South Africa)
Multiple disease processes in the brain such as epilepsy are associated with inflammation of the brain and the action of particular ions—with these resulting inflammatory diseases being especially prevalent in Africa. Raimondo aims to use a technique he developed to measure the proportion of ions within brain cells to inform new treatments for epilepsy.  

Kanyiva Muindi, Kenyan, African Population and Health Research Centre (Kenya)
For many Kenyan homes, wood is traditionally used as the main fuel source, resulting in deforested areas in Kenya and damage to the health of those mainly exposed: women and young girls. Muindi seeks to introduce ethanol as a cleaner, more sustainable fuel source and introduce this to homes throughout Kenya and other African countries. 

Margreth Tadie, Zimbabwean, Stellenbosch University (South Africa)
Mining is important in developing economies, however the wastage and environmental impact is vast. Reckless disposal of mining by-products damages waterways, livestock and human health. Tadie seeks to curb the wastage and polluting capacity of mines, while promoting and supporting mining jobs and economic prosperity 

Marique Aucamp, South African, University of the Western Cape (South Africa)
With over 1.8 million children living with HIV, treatment is vital. Yet, there remains poor adherence to treatments, which can be mainly ascribed to the lack of child-friendly formulations. Though ARVs are extremely bitter, Aucamp plans to tailor microencapsulation techniques to ensure the drugs are palatable, low-cost, and effective. 

Banothile Makhubela, South African, University of Johannesburg (South Africa)
To convert non-edible biomass into useable fuel, metal catalysts are required, which at the moment are derived from noble and less than sustainable metals. Makhubela aims to harness cheaper, more available metals such as copper that excel as efficient and sustainable catalysts. 

Cecil King’ondu, Kenyan, Botswana International University of Science and Technology (Botswana)
To process biodiesel—a renewable transport fuel—to the standards of Europe and America, large amounts of water are needed, resulting in both wasted water and waste water. King’ondu proposes the use of super capacitors to process the water more efficiently to meet standards and legitimise the use of biodiesel throughout Africa. 

Debra Rossouw, South African, Stellenbosch University (South Africa)
In order to take advantage of the unique products of synthetic biology, such as ‘micro-lichens’ for wastewater treatment and ‘yeast-bacteria’ pairs for food production, we need to understand how these organisms interact at a precise mechanistic level, and this is exactly what Rossouw plans to do.

Ezekiel Mugendi Njeru, Kenyan, Kenyatta University (Kenya)
For smallholder farmers in the semi-arid regions of Kenya who are unable to afford vital inorganic fertilisers for their crops, there is an alternative: the microorganisms that increase nutrient uptake in crops. Njeru will map biodiversity patterns of these microorganisms to optimise their introduction to crops to improve yield and drought tolerance.

Elizabeth Ndunda
, Kenyan, Machakos University (Kenya)
For developing countries, environmental pollution is an emerging challenge. One such pollutant type is the probable human carcinogens PCBs, which accumulate in animals. Ndunda is developing an accurate, readily deployable sensor for these widespread environmental pollutants.

Francis Wamonje, Kenyan, International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Kenya)
Combatting crop-destroying aphids in sub-Saharan Africa is expensive and impractical. Fortunately, aphids means of feeding—‘strawing up’ plant innards—leaves them vulnerable to unique types of viruses that are innocuous to their plant host, but lethal to pest aphids. Wamonje plans to sequence the diversity of these viruses to introduce a strain to reduce aphid populations pesticide-free.

Justin Komguep Nono, Cameroonian, University of Cape Town (South Africa)Schistosomiasis kills vast numbers of people, particularly in Africa, and incapacitates millions—its effects ultimately promoting poverty, and there’s no vaccine. Nono plans to analyse the genomes and microbiomes of those children more resistant to the parasite to potentially identify a mechanistic weak point in transmission to eliminate the disease.

Leopold Tientcheu Djomkam, Cameroonian, MRC Unit at LSHTM (The Gambia)
The treatment for tuberculosis (TB) is time-consuming, taking at least six months, and for those in Gambia is often ineffectual, likely because the drug was designed to combat M. tuberculosisas opposed to M. africanum—the infectious agent that causes half of TB cases in West Africa. Djomkam aims to stimulate the immunity of those suffering from M. africanumto complement the anti-TB drug and reduce the treatment time altogether. 

Robert Skelton, South African, South African Environmental Observation Network (South Africa)
Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the areas most vulnerable to drought and incremental warming, and yet little is known about the capacity for flora to cope. Skelton will perform a quantitative assessment on the fundamentals of ecosystems: plant performance, health, and tolerance under drought conditions, helping to inform climate-change resilience.

Sarah Fawcett, South African, University of Cape Town (South Africa)
For every benefit provided by urbanised, coastal regions—fishing, seafood harvesting, tourism—is a suite of damaging corollaries including sewage and pesticide run-off. Fawcett will track the sources of pollution by using an immense model system: False Bay, South Africa’s largest natural bay, with the aims of informing government on where to place Marine Protected Areas. 

Veron Ramsuran, South African, University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa)
HIV develops more or less rapidly depending on individuals, specifically the immune genes responsible for setting off a response. Ramsuran’s work will analyse the factors affecting expression in pertinent immune-modulating genes.

Wade Petersen, South African, University of Cape Town (South Africa)
A recurring and chemically useful structure ‘spirocyclic oxindoles’ can be used as the backbone for many, potentially disease-quashing, drugs however when it is produced, its mirrored, less functional form is often the result. Petersen aims to use new chemistry, including the manipulation of light, to selectively produce the desirable version of the molecule. His research will be applied to drugs treating malaria, TB and HIV.