Professor Barnabas Nawangwe

Vice-Chancellor | Makerere University

“We must create tailor-made solutions for us that insulate us from concepts like ‘Vaccine Apartheid’, where people from this side of the world get vaccine aid last. With the help of the government we carried out the most transformative modernization project of our research labs during the pandemic. We now have labs that can compete with the best research labs all over the world.”

Key Points

  • AfricaLive speaks with Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe, vice-chancellor of the historic and influential Makerere University in Uganda. The university was already recognised as one of the top research universities on the continent but the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic saw leaders in Uganda realise change was needed.
  • ‘Vaccine Apartheid’ was the term given to the inequitable distribution of vaccines leading to lower vaccination rates in developing countries like Uganda.We can’t keep relying on the developed world for ready-made solutions and handouts,” says Prof Nawangwe.
  • In this interview Prof Nawangwe explains how as a nation Uganda has changed course and unlocked funding that has changed Makerere University forever.
  • The university now seeks to scale up its impact in partnership with global organisations and leading universities, with Prof Nawangwe urging the scientific world to “avoid the silo mentality because our discipline calls for the improvement of all of humanity, not just particular populations of people.”

AfricaLive: How has the identity of your university changed in recent years, and did the COVID-19 pandemic force you to adapt and bring about lasting change in different  areas?

Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe: We just celebrated our 100 year anniversary and this has given us an opportunity to look back and celebrate our achievements over the decades. We now live in times where issues like climate change, conflicts and population explosion are at the fore. As a university, we have to adapt and find ways to become a solution provider for all these issues that bedevil our great lakes region. 

The effects of COVID-19 are still prevalent and that has led to the realization that we must change our strategy. We can’t keep relying on the developed world for ready-made solutions and handouts. We must create tailor-made solutions for us that insulate us from concepts like ‘Vaccine Apartheid’, where people from this side of the world get vaccine aid last. With the help of the government we carried out the most transformative modernization project of our research labs during the pandemic. We now have labs that can compete with the best research labs all over the world. 

When the labs were done, we invited people to present ideas on how COVID-19 can be controlled. We were happy to receive over 200 proposals from people across all disciplines. The proposals enabled us to come up with innovative projects like the Hands-free Boreholes, a project that saw people draw water using solar power as opposed to touching handles while drawing water. We also developed low-cost ventilators and locally made sanitizers. 

These activities attracted the attention of the public and our government took notice. Our ability to create local solutions was highlighted and we were able to secure important funding. Looking back, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise and made us change the way we market our projects. We want to be known as the dominant local solution provider. The completion of the modern labs has given us a platform to pursue our other aims even more effectively. Issues like food security, conflict resolution, natural resources, youth unemployment and climate change are top on our agenda. 


AfricaLive: When dealing with COVID-19, you made it clear that your country can’t keep relying on the developed world for ready-made solutions. Do you feel the same way about the climate crisis?

Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe: Yes, Uganda is in the center of the great lakes region, which according to research could suffer greatly from the effects of climate change. We depend on Lake Victoria, the Nile and other important water points for sustenance. We must face the possible reality of these water bodies drying up, leaving hundreds of millions of people suffering water scarcity. This possible disaster coupled with drought spells that have become more frequent over the years, present an existential threat to our people. 

This is why we have been locked in research working to develop new drought-resistant crops. We want to increase our yield of indigenous crops which are an important solution for sustainable food security. Our scientists are coming up with new crop varieties that can increase our yield by up to five times. 

We are also looking to counter diseases that have been devastating our people, livestock and crops. Ebola for example is a disease that has been around for decades but is increasingly becoming more of a threat due to population growth. A higher population means more contact and easier infections. Our university is the most advanced when it comes to Ebola research and we are looking at more diseases like Marburg. These unique challenges that bedevil our region are why we need to conduct our own research and come up with local solutions as opposed to waiting for benevolent foreign actors to bail us out. 


AfricaLive: We have seen the Research and Innovation Fund set up by the Ugandan government already have an impact. Could you tell us how the fund will shape your work in the coming years?

Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe: The Research and Innovation Fund has changed our university in many ways. Our volume of research has doubled and the diversity of research projects has increased. When we mostly depended on international agencies to fund our activities, the agencies set the agenda on what they wanted us to research on. Their priorities often did not include some of our environment’s urgent needs. With the establishment of our own fund, we can now cover all our priority disciplines. The fund also expressly requires us to focus on issues that are of utmost importance to Ugandans. These issues are arrived at by having sit downs with major stakeholders such as the government, NGOs and ourselves. This has led to advancements in crop research, health and engineering. 


AfricaLive: With innovation being a major focus for your university, what would you say innovation means to you?

Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe: We have been working to define innovation in Makerere’s context and it has been a very interesting debate. We look at innovation as bringing new ideas into what is already existing. Innovation does not always have to mean new inventions, it can also mean new processes, procedures and standards for existing disciplines. 

An example is in our tourism, we have always seen our tourism sector as a magnet for attracting Europeans to come and look at our animals. Our students are figuring out that a lot of modern day tourists are interested in the culture of the people. They want to see what the people do and how they live day to day. We have also seen innovations in our education sector as far as teaching is concerned. The pandemic taught us that relying on brick and mortar classrooms is a bad idea. We must integrate new forms of teaching which include distant learning and hybrid learning models.


AfricaLive: Uganda is targeting 2040 as the year the country aims to reach upper middle income status. You also have a green growth development strategy in place that details a path to becoming a sustainable food secure nation. Do you believe Uganda can transition properly from setting good policies to successfully implementing them?

Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe: I believe we can successfully implement the policies we have set. I know people say that Uganda leads the world in policy formulation and then drops the ball as other countries implement what we have formulated. Our inability to implement the sound policies that we formulate is actually a subject of study at our university. Our implementation capability is now being tested as we roll out the Parish Development Model. This is an ambitious program that our president is keen on that seeks to bring millions of impoverished people into the money economy. It involves constant monitoring of rural environments to see how the plan is getting on and what needs to be changed or improved. 

We have teams of students visiting these rural areas and coming back with detailed reports as part of our coming development lab. The lab will focus on implementing the Parish Development Model and we are inviting all the key actors working on this strategy for periodic brainstorming sessions. The government has given our plans a lot of good will and is keen on implementing this project with surgical precision. We want the successful implementation of the model to be part of this institution’s legacy. 


AfricaLive: Please engage our international audience by highlighting some of the specific programs you are undertaking in research or teaching to advance your agenda even further.

Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe: We have been working on building two world centers of excellence. These are MaRCCI, Makerere African Center for Research In Crop Improvement and the Nanotechnology Center which is looking at materials and nanotechnology. MaRCCI is doing a tremendous job by concentrating on our indigenous crops that have been the mainstay for livelihoods for most rural people. A lot of these crops are disappearing and this is cause for concern for the future. One of these crops is sorghum which has been MaRCCI’s subject of study. The center has come up with varieties of the crop which has improved yields by five times. This development has encouraged farmers to grow the crop and sell it to beer companies to gain a decent income that lifts them from poverty. 

MaRCCI has also done tremendous research on our Irish potato crop. Our researchers found that high volumes of the yield end up wasted because people prefer other larger sized varieties of the crop. The researchers concluded that instead of abandoning the crop, they can use the surplus yields by mixing them with sorghum to create new products. They have created products such as waffles and cookies which are very popular with the people here. This has also led to the creation of cottage industries deep inside rural communities to help channel the profits into those communities. What used to be waste is now a big income earner for our Irish potato farmers. 

The center for Nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary center that works with people in agriculture, health sciences and other disciplines. Researchers from this center have provided invaluable support to the school of health sciences to come up with new vaccines. They have also helped the researchers from the veterinary services college to come up with an East Africa specific animal vaccine. 

I must also mention our most talked out project which is our air quality project; AirQo. The project has been a great success because it has been adopted by major cities around the world. The system is used in Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and many others. The system measures air quality every hour. The solution was born from the realization that we are increasingly getting diseases because of air pollution. Air pollution issues are not a preserve for industrialized countries, our people get air pollution related illnesses from using firewood to cook and also from old cars being driven in our cities. This solution has attracted a lot of media attention and that is a great thing. 


AfricaLive: What does partnership mean to you and what would be your message to the international audience?

Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe: I would like to remind people that the problems that affect humanity are common all over the world. This calls for a joint approach in research as opposed to working in silos. 

Research teams that are open to collaboration are more often than not more successful in their aims. Our model for research is very collaborative and that has helped us a lot. We have set up partnerships with colleagues from the United States and Europe and these synergies produce great results. My message to the scientific world is to avoid the silo mentality because our discipline calls for the improvement of all of humanity, not just particular populations of people. When all of us are living more comfortable lives free of disease and hunger, the world will be more stable and peaceful. Our obligation is to make that world a reality. 


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