The Next Einstein Forum (NEF) is a platform which aims to enable Africans to find African solutions to African problems, through the coming together of African leaders in science, policy, industry and civil society. The 2016 platform took place from 8 to 10 March in Dakar, Senegal. Pelly Malebe, a Biotechnology PhD candidate at UP, was selected as the NEF Ambassador for South Africa and represented the country at this year’s gathering. Malebe’s current research focuses on identifying and developing molecular markers for drought tolerance in tea plants. The importance of such research is linked to her understanding that the genetic basis of drought tolerance may impact on food and job security in Africa. Malebe is the recipient of the Department of Science and Technology Women in Science Doctoral Fellowship in 2013 and currently has a Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products Network PhD Fellowship. In an interview with Perdeby, Malebe discussed the NEF, the significance of the NEF and her research, as well as the impact of such a Forum on Africa and African youth.
What are the most persistent problems in terms of Stem and social sciences facing Africa and more specifically South Africa?
The three most persistent problems that were discussed included the lack of funding, lack of infrastructure and resources, as well as the Brain Drain in South Africa and Africa at large. The one issue that was brought to surface and that stood out for me was the under-representation of women in the fields of science and technology. Women are still under-represented in top research managerial positions. Women are still under-represented in science, technology, and innovation policymaking. In South Africa there are a number of initiatives to promote women in Stem. The Thuthuka program has been in existence since 2001 [and] it has fast tracked for [female] academics PhD, Post-PhD and Rating.
Institutions need to recognise women achievers in science and technology. There is a need for mentorship to be a formal part of research support. Interventions help in creating an enabling environment for the progression of the girl-child and women in the science, technology and innovation sector.
Our African governments must respond proactively to gender discrimination in Stem and work closely with women, scientists and technologists to fully understand the barriers and impediments and respond to them. There are talented women in science who are doing excellent work. The NEF aims to ensure that they are encouraged and supported to play a full role in Stem.
What are your views on Africa, its development and economic growth, in relation to the rest of the world?
When comparing Africa’s research output to the rest of the world, Africa is lagging behind. Africa is faced with many challenges including poverty and hunger. We need to realise that science and innovation are the key to our economic growth and food security.
Africa is such a rich continent in terms of healthy agricultural land. We need to incorporate biotechnology tools to combat climate change. Africa is developing [and] there is plenty of room for growth. As Africans living in Africa we can identify the gap, the missing infrastructure, and the needed technologies. We should be using our ideas to further grow our knowledge economy and develop our continent.
We need to define for ourselves what development is. Knowledge economy is last on the list when basic needs are not met. There are parts of Africa where running water, electricity, and daily meals are a luxury. Education is placed lower on the list. The first step to growing our knowledge economy is to provide education for all and to provide mentor programs. In addition to knowledge investments, knowledge distribution through formal and informal networks is essential to economic performance.
How does your current research around drought tolerance reflect current situations in South Africa and Africa?
My research focus is on identifying and developing genetic markers for drought tolerance and yield on the tea plant. These biotechnology tools can be applied to other crop research. My interest lies is in identifying ways to increase food security. The threat to food security has become a reality in South Africa as we recently experienced our worst drought in December 2015. I am interested in increasing the understanding of the genetic basis of drought tolerance and yield in the tea plant. Ultimately, research such as this has the potential to impact on food security, through breeding of drought-tolerant crop varieties.
How may this research assist African leaders and actors at the NEF with transforming Africa?
Drought hinders agriculture. This results in food limitations and threatens the economy. My research advances rural development through innovative approaches to sustainable farming in Africa. We collaborated with the Tea Research Foundation of Central Africa in Malawi and the Tea Research Institute in Kenya. The information we discover in the lab is given to the tea farmers in Kenya and Malawi through the tea foundations and institutes.
This research is a great example of Africans doing research in Africa solving African problems. Kenya is the third largest producers of tea, after China and India. Tea is Kenya’s leading foreign exchange earner for the country.
What are your hopes for the future in terms of the NEF and the impact of your research?
Science and innovation have always been the key forces behind agricultural and educational growth as well as economic transformation. STEM has the ability to add value to entrepreneurial activities. My hopes for the future are that Africa will continue to grow and be able to compete on a global scale and out-perform the current developed nations. My hopes for my research are that I continue to add value to small-scale and large-scale farmers as well as tea research institutions. I aim to remain an ambassador fo