A new PhD programme aimed at addressing food insecurity and boosting a pool of academics in Kenyan universities will be launched in seven public universities.
However, Kenyan students will have to compete with their East African comrades for the lucrative multi-billion shilling African Sciences Research Consortium (ANSRC) scholarship programme targeting basic sciences research on nutrition and agriculture.
The rare opportunity – the first in Africa – is a major collaboration with Columbia University. The ANSRC is a partnership that brings together academic and research institutions across the East African region with the goal of building a PhD training programme in basic research in nutritional and agriculture science.
The main aim is to address food insecurity in the region and raise the number of trained manpower in the selected fields of study across East African universities.
The basic sciences training initiative will increase the number of highly qualified scientists in East Africa with skills to manage the double burden of nutrition crisis.
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Seven local public universities will be part of institutions of higher learning from Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda that have agreed to participate in the programme.
A coordination office for the programme has been set up in Nairobi at the Columbia Global Centre (CGC) Nairobi, under the leadership of Dr Murungi Ndirangu.
The ANSRC programme brief explains that most universities face poor teaching and learning challenges and have few human resources for teaching and research.
“Even for the few available doctoral trained university faculty, the quality of their output may be limited by lack of research funding and heavy teaching loads. This has impaired the ability of these institutions to undertake quality research,” reads the document.
Dr Ndirangu cited under-nutrition and over-nutrition, the rising tide of non-communicable chronic diseases, food insecurity and climate change as some of the key threats that must be addressed.
The programme brief says higher education in East Africa is at a crossroads, citing exponential growths in students’ enrollments in both public and private universities.
“There is also a severe shortage of doctoral trained individuals to teach Masters-level programmes and lead research in East African universities,” reads the document.
Speaking yesterday, Dr Ndirangu said the ANSRC initiative will benefit about 100 students in first five years of implementation. Some 10 students are targeted in the first phase, scheduled to start in a year’s time.
“The number will be doubled in the second year of implementation then an annual intake of 20 students in the subsequent years,” she said.
Dr Ndirangu said all successful students will get full funding for the PhD programmes and stipends for the entire four-year period.
“The first admissions will be done in about a year and students must look out for a communication calling for applicants,” she said, adding that a recruitment committee is already in place to determine the criteria and qualifications for the programme. The selection team consists of universities, Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA) and Education Ministry regulators.
“We shall also establish the curricula and laboratory training, monitor their research projects and establish centres of excellence within which the research activities will be enhanced,” said Dr Ndirangu.
She said the consortium – in partnership with representation from the private sector – will decide the quality of the dissertation to merit a PhD degree for individual students.
“We will not just offer laboratory-based training for academics sake, but shall also link graduate students’ training to a path of action where students will be conducting basic research on public health problems in East Africa,” she said.
After graduating, the students will be monitored and some incorporated in critical panels of the programme.
“Because of the private sector involvement, graduates may be absorbed by private companies. But there will also be a mentoring programme after graduation and graduates will constitute subsequent panels,” said Ndirangu.
The programme is built around the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) and the African Population and Health Research Consortium (APHRC), the two well-established partnerships that already are successfully functioning in Africa.
A status report on basic science in East Africa shows that few institutions have the capability to provide laboratory infrastructure and human resources for graduate training.
The ‘Basic Science Research and Education: a priority for training and capacity building in developing countries’ report stresses the need for multi-institutional, cooperative research and establishment of consortia to address the gaps.
“Multiple institutions can share curricular development, teaching and faculty and also use available information technology resources for training students at multiple sites,” reads the report by Prof Richard Deckelbaum and Debra Wolgemuth of the Institute of Human Nutrition (IHN) of Columbia University.
Dr James Ntambi, professor of biochemistry and nutrition at University of Wisconsin, has also authored the report.
The three scholars, together with Dr Bonnie Dunbar of the University of Nairobi, are behind the ANSRC programme.