Promoting innovative and sustainable research opportunities for women scientist in Nigeria
Kick starting our podcast series this year is self-proclaimed ‘woman in science’, widely published soil scientist and the National Chairperson, the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) Nigeria Chapter, Professor Olayinka Nwachukwu. She talks about how her work with the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) is promoting gender equality in science and technology in Nigeria, and how this can lead to more inclusive and sustainable solutions to local and global problems. She also shares her personal experiences as a woman in science offering advice to young women and early career researchers on the challenges and opportunities that exist particularly in Nigeria.
Joy Owango: Welcome to Mazungumzo- African scholarly conversations. We are joined by an expansive list of African policymakers, dance communication specialists, innovators, and tertiary leads who contribute to this realm of science communication. I am your host, Joy Owango, the executive director of the Training Center in Communication.
With us today is Professor Olayinka Nwachukwu, a reputable and widely published soil scientist, Editor-in-Chief of The Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike (MOUAU) Journals, and the National Chairperson, the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) Nigeria Chapter, hosted at Michael Okpara University of Agriculture.
Welcome to the program, Professor Olayinka.
Prof. Olayinka Nwachukwu: Thank you very much, Joy.
Joy Owango: As we get into the program itself, can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved with the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World OWSD?
Prof. Olayinka Nwachukwu: All right. Thank you so much, Joy, for having me on the podcast. I like to describe myself as proudly a woman in science. I’m also a mother and a grandmother, and I think I’m just typical of millions of women and all over the world who have learned to forge ahead, manage careers, juggling with family, and then be able to strike a work life balance. So, about myself, I had my first two degrees from Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile Ife, Nigeria. It’s a first generation federal university in my country. And then I won a Commonwealth scholarship, and I was able to undertake my doctoral studies at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom. So I’m a soil scientist, as I have been introduced, and I started work, as it were, as a junior research fellow at a research institute. And over time, gradually, I came into academics. But I have a passion both for academics and for research. So I teach, I supervise students, but I still do research. And my main research interest is on industrially contaminated soil and how these soils can be remediated and put back to use for agricultural production. That is my research interest. And there are many ways of going about this. So this has taken me into some of the local communities where a lot of the contamination is going on. Illegal mining, people dumping waste from industries indiscriminately and the local residents bear the brunt of it. It goes into the borehole waters, the groundwater that they drink, it goes into the rivers that they utilize. It affects their lives. And many of these areas, you have people having lead poisoning, children dying, cases of infertility, whatever you can think of that heavy metals can cause in the body. Many of these locals are exposed to them, and they don’t even know. So that is my passion, that is my science, that is what I do regularly. Now, how did I get into Organization for Women in Science for the Developing world, also known as OWSD? I became a member of OWSD, which is an international organization, by the way, with the headquarters in Trieste, Italy. OWSD is the female arm, as it was the third world academy of science, and it was created in 1986, more to be able to cater to the needs of women in science without just pulling them together with the men folk as a general thing. And so I became a member in 2010 of the international body. And it was the same year that a national chapter was founded in my home country, Nigeria. It was quite interesting, many of our Nigerian women scientists who had been members of OWSD, were at the general assembly of OWSD in China in 2010, and it was there that the Nigeria chapter was founded. So I was just a member, and in 2017, we inaugurated the local branch in my own university where I work. And we are just a part of the national body. There are more than thirty branches all over the country. OWSD Nigeria, like I said, was established in 2010. We have more than 2000 members of OWSD, Nigeria. And these are women scientists in different spheres of science, making waves, achieving great things in their areas of science. So I started just as a member, like any other person.
Joy Owango: Could you tell us more about OWSD and the impact it has had on advancing gender equality in science and technology in developing countries, particularly in Nigeria? Also, could you share with us what other chapters exist, and in comparison, what are the numbers in terms of membership, comparing to Nigeria?
Olayinka Nchwukwu: All right, first let me start by talking about the other chapters that exist. OWSD, as an international organization, can be found in about four continents of the world. OWSD, that is in the developing world, is in Latin America, is in the Arab region, it’s in Africa, and it’s also in Asia. So they are found in those countries. And let me home in on Africa. In Africa, there are about 14 different country chapters. And incidentally, very recently, 13 of those national chapters were all able to converge in Cape Town at the World Science Forum. And so Nigeria, like I said, has more than 2000 members. The reason for this is because Nigeria is a very populous country. The population of the country is more than 200 million. And so it is the largest country, as it were, in terms of population in Africa, in black Africa. So it’s a given. And it goes without saying, when you have a large country with so many people, and we are a highly education conscious country. So people go to school all the way to university or polytechnic. People get a tertiary education. It’s almost a normal thing, every household you go into. So it’s not a surprise that Nigeria has the largest chapter for women in science. That is OWSD there are other country chapters. You have in Ghana, you have in Cameroon, you have Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, and you have in South Africa. The list goes on and on. You have in Kenya. I was privileged to meet so many of these women. And in each of these country chapters, the women scientists are doing fantastic things. For us in Nigeria, the main focus, what we mission, is just in line with the international, and one, we want to strengthen the roles of Nigerian women scientists in the development process of our country. That’s the first thing. We want to promote their representation in scientific and technological leadership. So the women are doing great things. They do a lot of scientific work. Nigerian women scientists are holding their own all over the world. But for those of us who are residents in Nigeria, we want to make sure that we are part of the development process and all the policy making that is going on. Another thing we do as OWSD Nigeria is that we encourage scientific research networking among women. Not just women, you can network with anybody, but we strongly and call scientific research networking among women. And thereby we are strengthening collaboration among women scientists. Because if they are doing research together, I may be in the southeast, in my unit, somebody else is in the southwest, another person is the northeast of my country. And we are collaborating on research together. That is strengthening collaboration both within and outside Nigeria. We also engage in information sharing. And one of the key things we do is mentoring. We have a lot of women scientists who have reached the peak of their careers. They are professors, they are directors. Many of them are really within the government. They are policymakers. Some have retired, some are still in active service. But we find a way to make sure that we engage them to mentor the early career women scientists for now, in Nigeria is an informal mentoring program that we have, but we desire to be able to have a structured mentoring program very soon. It’s informal in the sense that you see a woman who is a great achiever in her field. We can make such women come, give a talk, give a webinar, talk about how they got grants, talk about how you can write proposals and so on. And from there, people began to relate one on one. So the informal mentoring start, and many women are full of testimonies, are full of success stories of how old by older now, I mean senior women scientists have been able to mentor them and guide them on their career path, and they have been better for it. So another thing we do as OWSD in Nigeria is we engage in effective sensitization and mentoring of young girls towards choosing careers in science. And we do this by making sure that each branch, we have like 30 branches, like I said, all over Nigeria, each branch adopts at least one secondary school. Usually it’s a girl’s secondary school. We call them our adopted school. Yes, that’s what we do. So each branch has an adopted school. And in that school, we go and do things like science clubs. We engage in debates. We really engage the young girls. and then we allow them to we show them role models. Sometimes we show film clips of Nigerian women scientists who are very successful. This motivates them. Like, if this woman could do it, maybe from a rural area, and she was not even from a rich family, she didn’t even have money, she had to depend on a scholarship to go to school. If she could do it, then I can do it. So that motivates the young girl. And another thing we do is that, like in my own local branch, every year we give prizes to the best graduating female students in science that is at the secondary school level. We give prizes e.g. Best female students in physics, in chemistry, in biology, and in mathematics. And one funny thing that happened is, at a point, got to a point, then the vice chancellor of my university said, this is bias. Why give only the girls? How about the boys in those schools? So we said, all right. What we now did, and we’ve been running this for five years now, what we now said is, okay, the overall best student in the sciences can be either a boy or a girl. And we give certificates and we also give cash prizes to these students. And it has been a very successful approach to sensitizing them and motivating them. Other things that other branches are doing. Some of them have set up scholarship funds for some of these rural girls. There was a girl somewhere in the far north in my country, in fact, she’s from an area that right now is really, really facing a lot of insecurity and insurgency. And this girl was almost like a walking human calculator. So brilliant in mathematics, yet she was just a local rural girl who had not even really had proper education. She was still in primary school, but very indigent, very poor, very rural. And so what one of the branches did was they simply decided to adopt this girl, adopt all her fees from primary school all the way to university. They were going to pay. So those are the kind of things we’re doing.
Joy Owango: So it is mentorship, research support, creating awareness on the importance of STEM, but also, most importantly, giving leadership, showing some levels of leadership and guidance when it comes to career choices for the youth. These are very important roles that OWSD Nigeria chapter is doing. As you had mentioned that this is the largest chapter amongst all the national chapterS. That is incredible. And as you mentioned, this is obviously because you’re a populous country, so therefore you get more representatives coming into the chapter. But it’s not only that. I believe it’s also interest. It’s also interest in OWSD and the support it provides to women researchers. That is why I can comfortably say that you have also this large number of members in your national chapter. With all said, what are the notable challenges that you have faced as the leader of OWSD? And what are you trying to do to mitigate those challenges? Because you’ve shared with us the success story, some of the activities you’re doing, but I’m sure you’re going through some challenges. So share with us some of the challenges that you’re going through at the moment.
Prof. Olayinka Nwachukwu: all right. As a country, and I’m sure this is not peculiar to Nigeria, we do have some challenges for women, like challenges of women being able to access research, women being able access scholarship opportunities for research funding, postdoctoral fellowships or opportunities for research visits as well.
Joy Owango: Why is that?
Prof. Olayinka Nwachukwu: Before 2017, many of these funding organizations or agencies, whenever they made a call then, it was open. Anybody could compete. These things were based on how strong your proposals were, the eligibility. Maybe they fit into the age they are looking for, the educational background and so on. And it was open to all countries to be able to apply. And so Nigerian women, so many Nigerian women have taken advantage of this. For instance, OWSD International has recorded very many Nigerian women who have won OWSD PhD scholarship. They have won postdoctoral fellowships. Nigerian women scientists have won the Elsevier Foundation Scholarship. They have won the L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship. So many wonderful, brilliant outings. However, from 2017, the United Nations decided or perceived that the GDP of Nigeria no longer qualifies us to be regarded as a least among the least developed countries. And so Nigeria was removed from the list of eligible countries, not for any other thing, but because they said, hey, there are countries that are poorer and need this more than Nigeria. And when that happened, it became a big challenge for us. Now, consider a situation where you have so many women scientists graduating from the universities every year, and they are hungry to do science. Many want to go on and pursue postgraduate studies. Many want the international exposure because, let’s face it, whichever country of the world you may come from, you always gain and add value to your research, to your science, your career, by being exposed internationally. And therefore, they leave this dry door. And many of these women could no longer access this, including OWSD funding opportunities like the scholarships, early career scholarships. Nigeria was no longer eligible. It’s not only Nigeria, there are other countries in Africa. When Nigeria became ineligible to all of them, either the PhD scholarships, the Elsevier prizes, or L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowships. So it became a big challenge. And yes, we’re a large number, but many of the young people began asking questions, why should I join OWSD? These opportunities were there. And these senior academics have been able to make use of these opportunities, and they have risen in their career. Why are we suddenly removed from this opportunity? And we had series what efforts we’ve made. We’ve had series of meetings with OWSD International, and it was clearly explained to us this was a decision not by OWSD international, but by the funders of OWSD, like UNESCO, like SIDA, these funding agencies that fund OWSD international were the ones who felt that Nigeria is no longer among the scientifically lagging countries. And as a funder, one can appreciate it. They want to put their money where they believe, to make greater impact, to develop more people, to give more opportunities. But then here we are, like we’re just left, and we are searching for opportunities. And everywhere you turn, you look at the list of eligible countries, and Nigeria is not there. So it’s been quite frustrating for us as a national chapter, but what have we done? Rather than just sit down and mop and feel sorry for ourselves, because, like I said, these are resilient, hardworking women scientists. And so they keep searching for other opportunities. Anyone that does not put a bar on the eligibility in terms of country, nigerian women are still applying for those, but there are few. And so what we are doing internally as a country chapter, is that we began discussing with the main funding organ in our country, It’s a federal government initiative called Tertiary Education Trust Fund(TETFUND). Tetfund actually is basically made up of tax. It’s an education tax that the government places on all business concerns. All companies within Nigeria, whether they are local or foreign companies, everybody, every company, every concern, banks, all of that, they pay an education tax. And what the government has done, very brilliant scheme, is that this education tax is used to fund education from the primary school all the way to the university. But the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TetFund) is specific for public tertiary institutions like universities, polytechnics, colleges of education. As long as it’s public that is owned by the government, it could be state university, it could be state owned it could be federal, as long as it’s not a private institution. TetFund supports in certain areas and some of the areas TetFund supports. TetFund gives scholarships for Master programs both within Nigeria and outside, TetFund gives scholarships for PhD programs both within Nigeria and outside, TetFund supports attendance at conferences both within Nigeria and outside Nigeria, TetFund Supports association journals, national association Journal. For instance, I’m a member of the Soil Science Society of Nigeria, and we have a journal, and TetFund has supported us. We’ve been able to publish the journal over time. TetFund also support research visits. TetFund gives what we call a research fund, institution based research that is, within your university, you collaborate with some other staff and then you do some research. TetFund also gives a bigger one called the National Research Fund. In that case, you need to collaborate with other scientists from other universities to do research. To do a proposal is very competitive. So all these are the things that TetFund has been doing these since inception, and it has been a very successful scheme. People have been able to benefit. But to benefit, you must be a staff of a tertiary institution in Nigeria. That is, you must be a staff of any of the supported institution.
Joy Owango: So, in a nutshell, what you’ve done, despite the challenges that you have faced with Nigeria being delisted as, being upgraded rather from a low income country to a middle income country, and as a result, missing out on the funding that would ideally have supported some of the women in the country. Because the mere fact that we are middle income country doesn’t mean that the population is equal. So there are those who can afford the support and then there are those who really cannot afford the school fees and the research fees. So what you’ve done is look inwards and see how TetFund can support you. And this is fantastic because it’s one of the ways you’ve looked at in making the chapter sustainable, because one of the ways you can make the chapter sustainable is by including its activities within the government. Obviously, the government has agenda and definitely its promoting women in STEM. And so OWSD is well placed to come in as a collaborating partner to actually help actualize this goal of the government through the TetFund. So I feel that is an opportunity that will definitely help increase the sustainability of the chapter.
Now, with this approach, what do you think the future holds for women scientists in Nigeria? Because you’ve shared with me the activities that you’re doing, especially when it comes to supporting and encouraging women. And now even young men in science as far back as high school. You are providing scholarships, you’re providing awards for these top researchers, you’ve also noted that despite the challenges, you’ve decided to look inward and see how the government, you can work with the government in supporting the national chapter and meeting the and also supporting women’s scientists beyond who are members of obviously the national chapter in Nigeria. But then with all these developments, some being challenges, but some also very positive, what do you think the future holds for OWSD, Nigeria chapter?
Prof. Olayinka Nwachukwu: I think the future is very bright for OWSD Nigeria. And I’ll tell you why. We’re not there yet. We’re not where we want to be. We want so much more. We need so much more because we are many. The population is much. I was privileged to have the Commonwealth Scholarship and did my PhD in the UK. I want a situation where every woman scientist in Nigeria will have an opportunity to go to the western world for part of their research, because it puts a stamp, it just changes the narrative of their career, of their research, of their view about everything. I think the future is bright for OWSD in Nigeria because we don’t give up, we have the tenacity. We can’t totally bridge, totally provide enough for everybody, but we can mitigate this lack of eligibility and this gap has been created. And it’s not only the government we are speaking with. We’re speaking with some international organizations that are based in Nigeria. We’re also speaking with wealthy individuals who we know are philanthropists and often support courses in science and what the kind of things are we are asking for. Individuals we are asking for please call students, maybe a scholarship or something, or somebody is on a Masters or a PhD. Please, can you just fund some bench work so that this person either can go to this industry where all the equipments can be found, or pay a visit to this institution where everything can be found, so you can fund the stay of that person there? So some of the women themselves have come up with other ideas. Like maybe you go to a conference somewhere, you get to meet a scientist from another country, and the person is working in a particular area. That’s why the networking that we do is so strong. It may not be your own research area, but you met this person, and so maybe a while emailing back and forth, the person says, oh, I have this grant and have space for an international scientist to visit for six months. Do you know anybody in such and such and such and such an area? And the first thing a woman scientist would do is to think of another woman scientist in Nigeria who can fit that. So that’s the strength of networking. Every opportunity we keep sharing information. We subscribe to what will I call them now? Alerts information platforms where you can always get information calls coming out and we drop it. We have a very strong platform all across the branches and we also have as a national because what we do is that the local branches have their WhatsApp groups, then there are national leaders and there are branch chairpersons and coordinators and all of us in a particular WhatsApp group. So any information you see, you drop it there, somebody picks it and sends it to her local branch and so on, and then it just snowballs. So there is no end really to the opportunities that may come up. For as long as we keep networking, for as long as we keep sustain the chapter and we keep sharing information, there is no end to it. So we’re not only looking to government and some of our senior women scientists who have retired have set up trust, some have set up trust. They want something, maybe the trust for best students, and they mentioned a particular discipline, maybe their own discipline, and then they want to fund part of the project or the research of that person. Some set of these funds for five years, some set for ten years. So they are giving back, as it were. So we are hopeful that we will continue to grow in numbers. And our diversity as a country makes us strong. Actually, in OWSD, we are using the diversity to our advantage. We don’t see it as a problem because we are different. We have so many ethnic groups where so many religious leanings we’re not looking at those things as challenges, we’re looking at them as strength, actually, so that we now take advantage of the diversity. And we have also embarked on having structured research groups as a national chapter. Remember that people work in different institutions. Some are in universities, some are in research institutes. Wherever they are, if they are members of OWSD in their branches, they form research groups such that these are groups that can put proposals out whenever they see a call. Sometimes if you needed to have a national outlook, they can easily reach other women scientists in other institutions. And so we keep doing the best we can but we’re optimistic.
Joy Owango: This is indeed good news. And I can’t even wind up in any better way than what you’ve done by saying taking advantage of diversity, taking advantage of numbers and thinking outside the box in order to look at ways in which you can be sustainable. Thank you so much, Professor Olayinka. And we look forward to seeing how this is going to turn out for OWSD. And we really look forward to seeing you support more women in Nigeria. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Prof. Olayinka Nwachukwu: Thank you so much, Joy. Thank you for having me. I’m really grateful. Thank you.
Joy Owango: You’re welcome. Bye for now.
Thank you for joining us in today’s episode of the Mazungumzo podcast. See you in our next episode.
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