Building Africa’s capacity in food systems research

A research network is connecting and empowering researchers across Africa for sustainable change in African food systems.

Food Systems Research Network for Africa mentors and fellows stood in a field of crops at the University of Leeds farm in June 2022. Picture by Motus TV.
FSNet mentors and fellows at the University of Leeds farm, June 2022. Picture credit: Motus TV.

Securing your first research grant as a postdoctoral researcher is a challenge in any continent, but nowhere more so than in Africa. Funding is scarce and competition is fierce, and, faced with numerous rejections, many younger academics resign themselves to full-time teaching instead.

That was the future facing Dr Nana Kwapong, who had spent two years unsuccessfully applying for research funding, following her appointment as a lecturer at the University of Ghana. Then in 2021, she finally got the break she needed.

Dr Kwapong is one of twenty post-doctoral researchers from Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia to win an Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet Africa) fellowship. FSNet Africa is funded under the Global Challenges Research Fund, in a partnership between UK Research and Innovation and the African Research Universities Alliance.

By supporting early-career researchers, the network aims to build Africa’s capacity in food systems research, so that findings can be used to underpin policy and practical interventions to enable Africa to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The two-year fellowship programme is unusual in a number of ways. Fellows, most of whom are female, are mentored by two experienced academics, one from a participating African university and one from the University of Leeds. The fellows also receive funding to develop and deliver a research project, and attend a number of summer schools, which allows them to meet other fellows and mentors face-to-face.

Fellows from the Food Systems Research Network for Africa at a summer school at the University of Leeds in June 2022. Women and a man sat in a room. Picture by Mike Bickerdike.
FSNet fellows at a summer school at the University of Leeds, June 2022. Picture credit: Mike Bickerdike.

For Dr Kwapong’s African mentor, Professor Jane Ambuko, Head of Horticulture at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, this combination of support makes FSNet Africa particularly valuable.

“I was lucky to be taken onto a mentoring programme at an early stage of my career, which I really appreciated,” she recalls. “As a post-doc without support, it can feel as if you are just groping in the dark to find your own place as a researcher. But the funding that comes with FSNet Africa takes that support to another level, allowing fellows to properly develop a research idea.

“Add to that the training, which gives them the skills to develop proposals and manage projects, and the fellows are getting a major advantage. They’ll likely even have an edge over established researchers, who have never had formal instruction in these areas.”

Dr Kwapong is researching the experiences of individual farmers as they adopt new practices to make their farming more resilient to climate change. She hopes to provide insights to help support the adoption of ‘climate-smart’ agricultural innovations.

Dr Kwapong’s proposal was shaped in collaboration with Professor Ambuko and her UK mentor, Dr Stephen Whitfield, Associate Professor of Climate Change and Food Security at the University of Leeds.

“Having two different perspectives on my initial idea really helped me in deciding the best approach and methodology to use,” says Dr Kwapong. “Jane and Stephen gave useful advice on writing the proposal as well and I now understand why my previous attempts at funding applications weren’t successful!”

Dr Stephen Whitefield at the Global Food and Environment Institute welcome event at the University of Leeds. Picture credit: Mike Bickerdike

Even before the research has officially started, the programme is already helping to build research capacity, by expanding the networks of fellows and mentors.

Professor Ambuko is herself developing research ideas with other mentors from the programme, whom she met face to face for the first time through the summer schools. Dr Kwapong is in close contact with the other fellows in Ghana, has linked up with a fellow in Malawi to act as an external examiner and regularly joins Dr Whitfield’s food systems research team meetings remotely.

“FSNet Africa is already opening up new opportunities to me, beyond my research project,” she says. “I now have many more contacts I could call on for research collaborations than before I became a fellow.”

Dr Whitfield agrees. “I already feel that I’ve made new contacts and strengthened existing ones through FSNet Africa. The programme has brought together a really diverse group of people in terms of both geography and research area and that is going to lead to collaborations in the future,” he says.

Despite the many benefits that FSNet Africa offers to all fellows and mentors, there is one element where the African academics remain at a disadvantage.

All academics have to juggle participation in the programme around their other commitments, but this can be particularly challenging for African academics who tend to have less control over how their time is managed and allocated.

Dr Kwapong was able to attend the summer schools during 2021 and 2022, but then had to do extra teaching duties to cover the time she was away.

FSNet Africa is building capacity in a very structured way. By helping researchers in Africa to develop their research area and acquire the skills to bid for, win and manage large food systems research projects, the network will ensure that in the future there will be more opportunities for researchers and research students to establish their careers.

And while the network is still at an early stage, this goal seems within reach. Dr Kwapong is already clear about the part she wants to play. “One of the most useful parts of the training covered supervision — something I already do, but have never been trained in,” she says.

“Already, it’s helping me do a better job. I hope one day I can also be a mentor and pass on the benefits that FSNet Africa is giving me.”

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