Uganda’s minister for Science, Technology, Innovation (STI) Dr Monica Musenero is a woman on a mission. An epidemiologist of renown who rose to international prominence during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa some years back, she returned home in time to be a key national adviser on handling the Covid-19 pandemic. When the worst of Covid was over a year ago, she was appointed STI minister, which is under the presidency.
A scientist par excellence, Dr Musenero taught had conducted research at Makerere University for 16 years before going international. Her scientific activism as a lecturer was student-like, leading to several radical changes in the examination formats. But now as a top national leader, would the same brand of activism work for the desired transformation?
During the pandemic, the government had been throwing money at Covid medicine researchers, so when Dr Musenero became the minister for STI, the local artisans, known as Jua Kali in the region, started thronging her doorstep. Whenever the president gave them a nod of appreciation at trade fairs, they rushed to the new STI department seeking funds for their innovations.
Referred for guidance
While the good doctor was always approachable, her questions to the Jua Kali artisans drew blanks. One innovator was pushing his new engine but when asked what would make someone buy it, he had no answer. So she referred him, like many others, to the government automobile maker, Kiira Motors Corporation (KMC) for guidance. The scientists at KMC are from the university and they tried to make the jua kalis understand systematic development of innovation, where the word “prototype” featured prominently. The jua kalis mostly walked away disgruntled. This included the man who couldn’t say what his engine was meant to do. They just wanted the government to give them money for their products.
But the disgruntled jua kalis hadn’t reckoned with Musenero’s persistence. After they ran away and stopped looking for her, Musenero reversed the chase and, like a good African mother, started hunting for the unruly artisans. Turning up at their workshops and even homes, she kept asking for their innovations. Some of them go by names like Ghetto Crew, with their attire, dreadlocks and attitude reflecting rebellion.
Some started going back to KMC for guidance, but with their excitement dimmed almost to zero. Painfully, they are being taken through systematic product development, including defining their vision, proof of concept, prototype, training, feasibility study and quality assurance.
Got government funding
The engine man, called Rogers Mubiru, has finally got government funding, and developed an exciting trike that is not just a strong tricycle in name, but also has triple purposes in that it can cheaply carry one tonne of produce, generate enough electricity for a (farmer’s) household and irrigate several acres with water in a day.
There is excitement in Uganda’s agricultural and industrial circles over the trike. Mubiru is now a champion and inspiration for convincing jua kalis to accept to be trained in systematic product development.
The irony of the new STI approach is that the jua kalis are on the path to becoming more relevant for research than the university community. A couple of months back, during Makerere’s centenary celebrations, top professors dismissed the 100 PhDs awarded during the university’s 72nd graduation ceremony. The dismissive dons argued that the doctoral research topics are chosen by the funders, who are largely foreign, in search of knowledge that is in their interest, not the country’s.
Of course, the government has been funding research, only that it is not to the magnitude of the foreign organisations, especially at PhD level. So the new approach of taking jua kalis through the systematic approach to research for development is likely to be beneficial to the nation. The revolutionary trikes may be too few in a year, but it is a start. It is likely to inspire more jua kalis who have been impatient with Dr Musenero’s questions, and accessing government funding should be enough incentive.
Becoming famous is another and, if one’s product becomes commercially successful, what more can a struggling Jua Kali artisan wish for?
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]