Science communication in Kenya: Is there too little science to communicate?

Guests at an African Science Cafe discussing the use of GIS to get information on health and agriculture / Kenyan Science Cafe

“Africa’s sustainability problems can only be solved by science-based solutions, and effective communication must play a key role in this.” These were the words of Mohamed H.A. Hassan, then executive director of the Academy of Science for the developing world (TWAS) speaking at the 2009 African Science Communication conference. However, Hassan went on to add that, “science communication can only be effective if there is enough science to communicate.” The number of science publications from Africa pales in comparison to other continents. How then should we approach science communication in a relatively science-sparse nation?

Understanding of scientific methodology must form the basis of this communication. This should include an understanding of the uncertainties and potential pitfalls of science, a lack of which has contributed to many of the recent scientific controversies in, for example, the UK. Building on this, the relevance and contributions of science to society will form another key component of science communication in Africa. Understanding of the societal impact of science is relatively low in Africa and could partly explain Africa’s low scientific output. Developing an appreciation of the application of science in solving current problems in Africa, such as improving food security and health, could build in young Africans an interest to pursue scientific research.

Although weary of the effectiveness of science communication in the absence of abundant science, Hassan provides five key recommendations to strengthen science communication in Africa. These are: establishing a science centre in each African country; founding an African centre for science policy and science communication; creating a science communication unit in each African science academy; forming an African space agency; and developing innovative methods to engage the general public in science.

There are both merits and shortcomings in Hassan’s recommendations. Although science centres have been successful in countries such as the UK and France, the same model may not work as well in Africa. Establishing one science centre per African country may not necessarily bring society into contact with science. In Kenya, 70% of the population live in rural areas. A science centre located in Nairobi, Mombasa or Kisumu will not be accessible to all.

Such centres would be more successful if they could be linked to an already existing infrastructure. The secondary schools Science Congress, in which high schools students from all around the country compete to produce the most innovative science ideas and experiments, could provide this. The Science Congress could be held in such science centres, where winning experiments would be showcased alongside other science exhibitions.

Unless science communication in Africa is stepped up, growth of science will be slow. Although relatively small, the current research base can be used by African science communicators to get their foot in the door. But directly copying science communication ideas from developed countries into an African setting will not be successful. While scientific methodology remains the same across the globe, individual cultures remain different. Science communicators must, for example, address the concern that scientific research could clash with traditional African practices. African science communication is still in its infancy, only by developing its own methods and practices will it continue to help the growth of science in Africa.

Juliette Mutheu is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial. In 2008, Juliette and her colleague Ruth Wanjala set up the Kenya Science Cafés.

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