Taskeen Adam and Richmond Juvenile Ehwi

Taskeen Adam and Richmond Juvenile Ehwi are part of a PhD programme that’s enrolling five African students per year for five years, to help train world-class researchers for Africa. 

The world needs African researchers. We can’t have a situation where 14% of the world’s population – living on a continent with unique culture, diversity and environment – contributes less than 1% of published research output.

David Dunne

“Africa needs a million new PhD researchers over the next decade.” It’s a huge figure. Professor David Dunne uses it to explain the scale of need in Africa for a new generation of scholars who will pioneer sustainable solutions to many of the continent’s challenges.

“There are world-class academics in Africa,” he explains, “but not enough to train and mentor all the young researchers that Africa needs to maintain and accelerate its progress. This is where Cambridge and other leading international universities can help, by making expertise and facilities available to help bridge this mentorship gap.”

Dunne is Director of the Cambridge-Africa Programme, a University initiative that for the past eight years has been building collaborative links between Cambridge and Africa. The model is centred on Cambridge researchers helping to mentor young African researchers in their African universities and research Institutions. This contributes to research capacity building in Africa but also benefits Cambridge by widening the experience and opportunities for its researchers and students.

However, that stark fact remains – a great many more new researchers are needed. With this in mind, a new Cambridge-Africa PhD studentship scheme began to enrol PhD students last year from all over Africa – five per year, every year for five years. “It’s at least a beginning,” says Dunne. “We want this programme to grow in Cambridge, and other universities.”

One criterion is that the prospective student must be studying issues that are priorities for Africa. The research interests of the current students are broad: from urban growth to poverty, business associations to sustainable industries, infectious disease to post-conflict citizenship.

Taskeen Adam

Taskeen Adam is one of the PhD students. She’d worked as an electrical engineer for two years when she decided that she wanted to use her skills to bring about social change. “What attracted me to engineering was the challenge of solving technical problems. But my real passion is for humanitarian issues and the need to create quality education for all.”

In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly declared access to the internet as a basic human right. But figures from 2014 gathered for Taskeen’s home country of South Africa showed that more than 4,000 schools had no access to electricity and 77% of schools had no computers. Many thousands of children were missing out on the chance to learn the skills needed to make a better life.

Her research is enabling her to look at the educational opportunities afforded by the internet, in particular the potential of decolonised African MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) as a means for delivering inclusive educational programmes to the most marginalised learners in South Africa. She’s keen to develop an online educational framework adapted for, and relevant to, communities in developing countries.

Taskeen completed her first degree at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. On graduating, and while working full time, she pioneered an initiative called ‘Solar Powered Learning’ to give students in rural areas access to technology that was both low cost and environmentally friendly.

The pilot project won Taskeen accolades. She was listed among South Africa’s Mail & Guardian’s top 200 Young South Africans for 2014. This gave her the confidence to embark on a career that would use her engineering skills in ways that could help to bridge inequalities.

As part of her Master’s research, she spent two weeks in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, where she visited schools benefiting from a national scheme to equip every child with a laptop. It was clear that this commendable programme was failing to enhance learning. Although resources were being provided, there was a lack of focus on maintenance skills, curriculum integration and teacher professional development. In many cases, the children were more comfortable using the laptops than were their teachers. 

“My trip demonstrated the mismatch between the deliverables and the outcomes of the scheme. The focus was on technology deployment, rather than on improving educational attainment,” she says. “Many African governments seem to be following a similar path, and I hope that, by using the resources, networks and expertise here in Cambridge, I might eventually be able to influence policy changes at the intersection of education and technology back in Africa.”

Richmond Juvenile Ehwi

Richmond Juvenile Ehwi also hopes to take his skills and expertise back to his home country, Ghana. He has just arrived in Cambridge to start his PhD in Cambridge’s Department of Land Economy. After his first degree at Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, he worked as a research consultant and estate manager.

Moving to Ghana’s capital city, he became interested in the changes he saw in the property market. “Plush Western-designed detached houses, apartments and gated communities are springing up and I wondered what the future would be like for Ghana’s urban landscape. While this development mirrors Accra’s integration into the globalised city concept, accompanying this trend are social, economic, environmental and cultural costs.”

As Western lifestyles become increasingly popular, the older-style family compounds associated with traditional Ghanaian culture are declining, even in rural areas. “With literacy rates and standards of living rising, households are demanding greater privacy and better sanitation which, in most traditional compound houses, are greatly compromised,” he explains.

In the West, gated communities are often seen in a negative light: they are associated with segregation, racial polarisation and social exclusion. While accepting the realities of this criticism, Richmond seeks to facilitate a balanced discussion and inspire evidence-based planning policies.

He suggests that, as new gated residences develop in the suburbs, there can be both material and social benefits for surrounding areas. “In Ghana, the new gated communities tend to be multiracial rather than segregated according to race or nationality. The ability to pay for your house is what counts, not what you do or what your ethnicity is. Gated developments offer the security and services that most people aspire to,” he says.

Entire neighbourhoods can benefit from the expectations of the owners of the new properties, he explains: “It’s misleading to think of gated communities as isolated enclaves. People who live in them are not completely cut off from society. They travel to work, to malls and markets, to church services. These public spaces facilitate social interaction. Also, better-off households offer employment for gardeners, drivers and care givers – and help to raise incomes and opportunities.”

His long-term plan is to create an Urban Study Research Centre back in Accra, and to take back a deeper understanding of the interplay of economic factors with social and cultural issues in urban development.

The multiplier effect

Dunne points to such plans as an indicator of the promise of the Cambridge-Africa PhD studentship scheme. “We are training 25 Cambridge-Africa scholars. It’s a small number compared with the overall need. But these researchers are a starting point. They will train other researchers and the expertise will multiply back in Africa.”

He adds: “It’s not just that Africa needs research and researchers for its own use. The world needs African researchers. We can’t have a situation where 14% of the world’s population – living on a continent with unique culture, diversity and environment – contributes less than 1% of published research output. The world needs the unique knowledge and perspective that African researchers can provide to solve our shared global challenges.”

The Cambridge-Africa PhD studentship scheme is funded by the University and the Cambridge Trust.

To keep up to date with the latest stories about Cambridge’s engagement with Africa, follow #CamAfrica on Twitter.


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