Why Research Mentorship Matters while Navigating Academia: Insights from Eider Africa’s founder, Aurelia Munene
If you are a researcher, you are probably familiar with the research lifecycle and all the challenges and opportunities that come with it. With this in mind, Eider Africa- a women-led social enterprise, has been working towards supporting researchers by providing a safe space for mentorship throughout the research life cycle and amplifying the voices of African researchers.
In this episode, Ms. Aurelia Munene, the founder of Eider Africa expounds on her journey in growing a vibrant community of research journal clubs and developing transformative inclusive research mentorship for African researchers who face unique challenges and barriers in their academic careers. Ms. Aurelia Munene is an international researcher in gender, sexual reproductive health, children, and youth, and a research mentor coordinator with over 15 years of experience in the development and humanitarian space. She is also a steward and research mentor at the AuthorAid research community.
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 Ms. Aurelia Munene, an international researcher in gender, sexual, reproductive health, children and youth, and also a research mentor coordinator with over 15 years of experience in the development and humanitarian space. She is the founder of Eider Africa, an African women led social enterprise that designs and delivers research mentorship with and for African academics, and also a steward and research mentor at the Author Aid research community. Welcome to the program, Aurelia.
Aurelia Munene: Thank you very much, Joy, for having me. It’s such a pleasure.
Joy Owango: Karibu sana. Tell us a bit about your background and research journey.
Aurelia Munene: Thank you. My background stands a long, long journey. So I started off my work as a health worker. I am a trained nurse-midwife. That’s where I started. Those were my foundations, and I worked in that for seven years. And once I finished, just in between my career, I was working in informal settlement and I recognized that we were taking care of very sick patients, HIV, TB, and I realized there is more to health than the curative element. So I’m very curious about the social element and the psychology element. So this took me to go to university and take a course in sociology- psychology. So I did that and got a better understanding of health and so shifted from clinical practice to now more development and work. While working there, I realized that there’s a lot of development issues that intersect with health that I needed to understand further. So I applied for a Masters, and this led me to the International Institute of Social Studies at The Hague, Erasmus University, where I did a master’s in development studies, and then also did a major in Social policy. So that was a great grounding for me and that’s where my interest for research developed. I came back home in 2014, I was on a scholarship, the newfic scholarship, and when I came back home, I had changed from someone who would never read an academic paper, scholarly paper, to someone who at least could make attempts. When I came back, I was interacting with other post graduate students and I recognized that most of them were really struggling to finish their studies. I started wondering how come? Because I had received so much mentorship. So that’s when the idea of, I think we need to have within the research ecosystem, extra support for students who do not receive funding from universities and cannot access very structured mentoring and this is within, especially the social sciences, where a lot of interest is in the STEM, but a lot of students who struggle a lot in the social sciences where there’s not too much funding. There’s also an assumption there isn’t so much need, but there are so many people who are struggling. So just to finish off how the idea got born, I put up a post on eventsbrite, and just said, if you are struggling with your research, please come for this event. Then I called four panelists of esteemed African scholars to come and just speak to the students, just to give them hope and motivation. We got over 80 plus registered participants and that’s when we recognized I think there is a need. So many students are struggling. The universities are there, they are doing a great job, but they are overwhelmed. It’s not easy for universities to allocate one on one support or to even run communities. And that’s when the idea of running a community that supports each other and grow together as researchers in the continent started, basically.
Joy Owango: So, in essence, you went to do research in administration and policy, and also in gender and reproductive health, and you came back seeing a bigger problem beyond the research that you’re involved in, the research capacity support that is needed to be available to early career researchers. Now with this amazing foundation for Eider Africa, tell us more about how this platform is managed. How does it work? Is it an online community? Is it a blended community? And how many people are in this community to date?
Aurelia Munene: Eider Africa, the structured organization, started in 2016. That’s when we registered, but we started activities late 2017. So we started with physical meetings because I felt that one way to connect best as researchers is just seeing each other. We would have tea, would donate snacks, and then we’d have a research topic calling someone maybe who had a PhD or someone who was very good in that specific topic. It could be literature review, it could be how to do analysis, how to craft a research question, and then have them take us through a three hour session. That’s how we began. One thing that was difficult was getting a free space to do this, but we were supported by members in the club who said, my university might have a space which you could use. So we did that till Covid came. The physical meetings were twice a month till Covid came. When Covid came, we couldn’t meet anymore. So we decided to go online. We looked at what platform would enable us to have almost personalized attention to members, because that was the foundation and we thought of WhatsApp. People already in Kenya use WhatsApp a lot, and they use it for different things and we thought maybe this is a platform which is easily accessible, you don’t pay anything and you can more or less have an interpersonal relationship. So we opened what we call Journal Clubs and then we started encouraging members to bring other members. If you know someone who’s struggling, bring them on. So the group quickly grew. We moved from 15 or 20 who were meeting physically to 200 to 500 to 800 to 1000 members. So we decided then with all these people in the group, we need to have a bit of factor, otherwise it will just be another WhatsApp group. So we did an assessment, you register and say what area are you struggling with in your research? What kind of support you need, what kind of resource can you also bring to the club because it was free, there was no funding, there’s no money in it and so members registered. Then we decided we need to structure a few activities that people can learn research without feeling very compounded because one thing that about people I noticed, they do not love research. It was boring, it was hard, and it was not practicable. So how can we structure mentoring activities that are fun, that are more engaging? We designed a few activities, we borrowed, and we did a lot of research just talking to people who have been there. Some of the activities we now do, that have run on, we have what we call the mock presentation, where students who are going to take on their defense, can have a panel within the group seat and listen to them and give them feedback. Then we designed activities around having mentorship calls. So two Saturdays a month we have two mentors, I included. We take on 30 minutes call, we sit with a student and just ask them what are you struggling with? They book early and then we go through that. Then we also have Shut Up and Write from the global Shut Up and Write movement. We saw that many students are coming for training, but they don’t write, they don’t have time to reflect and write and that’s when we said we will have twice a week, 2 hours of moderated, just keep quite wherever you are and just write and work and think. Then we also had activities like critically reviewing a text. When I was at The Hague, one of the courses we had to take was a reading class and a writing class and this is not available a lot in our university. So the critical reading of a text helps us to sharpen our reading and become critical readers and critical questioners. Then we had webinars. These have been very popular. Our website and our YouTube is full of webinars and we say these webinars we will not just focus on professionals. One way to learn research is by doing. So what do we do? We ask members, these are the topics members are struggling with who would like to present? So members volunteer themselves and then they say, I’ll deliver this. And then we support them, review their slides, and book them a meeting. If you go to our YouTube page, you’ll find most of the webinars are done by students because we wanted to really bring the visibility and the voice of students in research.
Just to mention two things. What is the type of membership we have? For us, we wanted a multidisciplinary approach to research, so we invited members from different disciplines. We have members from over 19 universities in Kenya and now in Africa, coming together to learn together, because we also want to break the silos between universities. We also have men and women. And then we also said that from undergraduate up to a lecturer, you are welcome. So our group, we have a few undergraduates, majority are PhD students. We have masters, we have post doctorate, and we have university lectures who say, I am also in school or I want to get better, and I have my own students, let me bring them in the platform. So that’s how we have grown. And just to say our four values are: Research is learning by doing. We are founded on the values of Ubuntu. So that’s why you’ll see most of the activities are run by members because we believe everyone has something to share. And we don’t believe in hierarchies in academia. Those are the ones that really make people feel lost in academia that a professor cannot speak to a student. We don’t have those hierarchies. Then we also believe in lifelong learning, that learning does not stop when you graduate. You have to keep learning. That’s why we have members who graduate and never leave the group, because then we also want to form careers in research beyond just researchers. We want research managers. We want people who can coordinate research in the continent. And our founding belief is that we want competent, confident and critical African researchers, because we recognize that Africa is one of the most research continent in the world. But most of the research is not done by Africans. We want Africans to tell our own stories. And if we build a pool of competent, confident and critical researchers, then we are on our way there.
Joy Owango: You brought out a number of things that have caught my attention, and that is supporting early career researchers, critical thinkers and future early career researchers who have a good ecosystem to thrive in conducting research. Also highlighted is the importance of the fact that you are supporting the university ecosystem and also acknowledging some of the challenges that the universities face, especially when it comes to supporting researchers in the social sciences and researchers who are not particularly funded, especially when it comes to research mentorship and support. And for this to happen, it means that you have to work with collaborators. So take us through some of the collaborations you have made that have supported the ecosystem from coming up with the idea of doing the research, writing the research, the publishing process, to the whole entire ecosystem that would be within their research lifecycle. Tell us the kind of collaborations that have come up and how they have supported the community.
Aurelia Munene: We recognize that as much as we are very heavy on the student level, this is a pipeline issue, this is an ecosystem issue. There are issues within the research ecosystem that really compound good training of researchers and also the work of the universities. So we decided that we will also work with partners who are in the ecosystem. So one of the partners we’ve worked with is the Association for Faculty Enrichment in Learning and Teaching (AFELT). This is an association of lecturers in different universities in Kenya and beyond, and we joined this organization because we feel that we need to transform how we are teaching research in universities, the methodologies we are using, we need to rethink about the approaches, how we are guiding students through thinking, through designing research projects that are meaningful, that are ethical. So we wanted to be in that space of shifting and transforming the teaching of research, because most students, they take a research methods course, but cannot translate that into theory. And when I did my studies, my masters, I did a research methods course in qualitative, and we had to practically go collect data, analyze it. So by the time you finish the course, you can actually analyze data. But our students, sometimes when they finish a research course, they can only memorize and remember the fact, but they cannot apply. So when we joined AFELT, I’m the research committee lead in AFELT and there we are trying to see if we can introduce a postgraduate course in a university where lecturers can come and upgrade or even share their skills with each other on how to teach research and transformative ways, because that work AFELT has been doing for a while. Then we looked at the ecosystem and said, who else is mentoring? And that’s why we met TCC Africa, who is hosting me today. We found that TCC Africa has had a legacy within the years of really supporting early career scholars in the area of publication, in the area of research. And we felt that joining together with them, they have a lead in this. And we need partners to help us also support the students better. Because once that window of EIDER was open, all the students just came in. It was too much. The demand was heavy. The supply was not as much. TCC Africa has been supporting, providing cohort research courses, providing new thought leadership, even in the area of open access and so that is very important for us. Then we also partnered recently on the area of peer review. This is one of the areas that finds most African students work, never get the light of day or researchers because of peer review processes that sometimes are equal and biased. And so we partnered with funding from Welcome Trust that came through E-Life. We partnered with Pre-Review, which has led a lot of work in training on peer review. We partnered with Pre-Review, E-life, TCC Africa, AfricArXiv and Eider Africa to design a course that is open access for how can you train people to be excellent Peer reviewers? We have done that.
We also decided to work with research organizations. One thing I noticed is that it’s very difficult to be a research mentor if you’re not doing research and that’s why I’ve always kept an active research career, because I know the field and I know the theory and bridging that constantly as a mentor is very important. So working with organizations like Nascent Research and Development Organization (Nascent-RDO), which was the foundation organization that built me as a researcher, has been very good, because sometimes I even take on members of the club that we run, the Africana Journal Club, and tell them, if you want to get a practice, come over. We have this research project. Come and read, practice and get better. So those are some of the organizations we have partnered with. We also recently partnered with an organization called Beyonder. This is about wellness in academia because we have a lot of violence and a lot of trauma in academia. And even as a founder I needed to be well, because it is overwhelming, and so Working with Josephine from Beyonder, has been great because they have brought in helping us to think how can we build our mentorship on ideals of wellness. And so I think that’s how we have partnered.
I want to mention three people who have really stood out, but they may not be in organizations, but they have really been with running these clubs. We run this club with so many students as four people. One of them is Dr. Wangari Joyce Ngugi. She has been a great force. She’s a research mentor, she coordinates all these groups. We run these activities together. And sometimes I think we are very biased to institutions in partnership. But I think also individuals who partner are very important. Then we have Raymond Munene very supporting, coordinating our social media, and they all volunteer. And then we have David Neshli, who runs the knowledge management. So these are also people who have stood by me. And among all the other mentors we have over 25 mentors who volunteer their time once in a while to really support the students. So I would never have made it without all these people coming in to just be there for each other.
Joy Owango: This has been really quite insightful on what you’re doing and the strategic partnerships you’re making that will help not only the program, but also the early career researchers. Because let’s be honest, they wouldn’t have access to this information readily if first of all the mentorship group was not there. And if you do not create these kind of partnerships like the peer review, the scholarly communication training, the thought leadership, all this access to information would be a bit of a challenge to access. And this is what you’ve successfully done by creating this mentorship program. And this makes me and of course, we also talked about the challenges, the administrative dynamics within the university, which make it slightly challenging in supporting all students equitably. We’re not saying that they’re not doing a good job, they’re doing an excellent job, but there’s so much they can do. So Eider Africa is coming in as a support ecosystem such that all students or the bulk of the students can be supported.
This leads to my next question. What would you recommend as a practical strategy in cultivating research mentorship in one’s career?
Aurelia Munene: Okay, just before I answer that, I’d like to also say the partnership with Author Aid, which also founded me very well, because Author Aid gave me access to a lot of resources and resource persons. Remember, when you start mentoring, sometimes all these resources are everywhere and nowhere, there are too many. So Author Aid was very important as a partner because of bringing all these resources in ways that can be accessible. I have been trained a lot, I’m a steward and I’ve had access to even other students beyond Africa.
Now, in terms of recommendations for research mentorship, I think research mentorship is critical. And it is critical because I realized how I was before I took my Master’s. And my Master’s supervisor is my friend and mentor till today. And I see what her leadership and mentorship has done to me as a researcher. And that’s why I’m able to really work in organizations without fear, because I know my foundations are right. So research mentorship is important because it really strengthens your foundation as a young scholar, as an early career researcher. And universities may not have the resource to set up research mentorship program, but they can work with partners, they can work with other actors in their ecosystem who can complement that role. Yes, universities are mandated to train and to qualify students, but then the one on one working with is sometimes difficult for universities to do. And that’s where organizations like ours and TCC Africa come in. Because the other thing about organizations like ours is that we also linked to many networks. We have resources in different places that we also bring into the mentorship space. So one of the practical ways I would say is to bridge this gap of their universities there. And there are these other mentorship organizations. Let’s see how we can complement each other’s role. Because what the university can do, we cannot do. They have great expertise, they have the libraries. But even for us, we have more time we can journey with. And we have all these resources. So that’s one practice that I wish that communication can be stronger. And the work with AFELT, I see it’s taking us there. The other practical thing I’ll say is we really need to design mentorship programs that work for us. For us, we have iterated the mentorship programs every single time. Because the context change, the needs of the students are different. The type of students are also different, their disciplines. So we also need to develop scholarship in research mentorship within Africa. We need people to do research on this. We also need to develop research mentorship programs within universities. So universities can collaborate with us outside, or we can come within universities and help to design mentorship programs, and not just for the students.
The other thing we recognize, lecturers are also desiring of mentorship because most of them have gone through the same system and they feel I want to give my students the best. But I was not supported in a way that I can confidently support. I don’t publish, I don’t do research. So as a lecturer, I feel I really need support. So that research ecosystem has to be built also within the university. And the other day we supported one of the big universities here in Kenya to design a mentorship program for faculty. And how can faculty also begin wearing the lens of mentoring? Because mentoring is for me a very reciprocal process. It’s not top down, it challenges the ideas of knowledge has to flow teacher to students. It brings the idea of reciprocity in knowledge. And when lecturers start having that lens, I can learn from the students, can learn from me. We begin transforming how we even teach. We begin to see mentoring as places of transformation, as places of grounding, of individuating, even in your own research area. So I feel there is space for mentorship. Let the conversation become tighter, become more intentional. And we have developed resources, we have also accumulated a lot of resources that we can use to design good mentorship programs in our continent. And finally, what I have seen within the continent, people are willing to share, African researchers are generous. I can say our membership program is supported by members. The spirit of Ubuntu is with us. So we have people who are willing to give back and give back in big ways. And so I just want to say we can design mentorship programs that are transformational and they can target different groups in the ecosystem.
Joy Owango: And I cannot think of a better way to end this podcast with what you’ve just said. Thank you so much. Aurelia. Your enthusiasm, your passion and I know this is so cliché. Yes, they are cliché work, but you can’t do work like this without passion. So your passion is recognized and that passion spread to the mentees. And it also shows your level of commitment to supporting other career researchers. Also, working with institutions in making them understand the importance of mentorship and also designing programs for them is a step in making the whole process of research mentorship much more sustainable within our African academic institutions. Thank you so much, Aurelia, for making time to join us. Until next time, do have a lovely day. Goodbye 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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