SEGH Articles

The Future is Africa

05 February 2014
In early January Dr Michael Watts visited Zimbabwe and Zambia with a colleague from the University of Nottingham. They were funded from a Royal Society-DFID grant to foster science networks in Africa and to help strengthen scientific capacity. Here Michael tells us about his trip


 On a recent visit to Zimbabwe and Zambia with my colleague Prof Martin Broadley from the University of Nottingham, we faced the usual clichés of poverty, rickety infrastructure and reported political problems (in Africa that is!). On the ground, we experienced well organised accommodation, welcoming people, good internet links, extensive construction projects and in particular we met some innovative colleagues working in academia. Academics in that part of the world press on with applied research, despite limitations in funds and access to the latest technology. In particular they use tried and tested approaches to laboratory analyses, field trials and application of empirical knowledge to help answer some real soil and agricultural problems, especially using regional networks.  In the UK, we could be mistaken for thinking all of Africa is dependent on aid. Much of it is, but in Zambia and Zimbabwe, there are huge opportunities in commodities and agriculture, as well as multimedia services driven by rapid progress in IT, internet and mobile phones. 

There are numerous opportunities for UK science to collaborate on an equal basis with African scientists. For example, our previous efforts in Malawi in proposing the biofortification of staple crops with essential micronutrients to target key health issues at a population level, is becoming accepted in the region. Many studies within academia and research institutes are underway to explore best practice for agricultural techniques to improve the fertility and micronutrient content of soil for food production / quality, within the confines of available resources, such as limited lab capability. The reason for our recent visit resulted from a network grant from the Royal Society-DFID call for strengthening science capacity in Africa. For our part, improving soil science capacity to build on excellent regional academic capability through access to current technologies in lab analyses, data representation and geostatistics. This can be facilitated via north-south and south-south research links with consortia partners in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Alongside the agricultural initiatives, there are opportunities for SEGH scientists to collaborate with local scientists on contaminant exposure associated with immense mining activities. Current studies in Zambia employ exposure techniques (microbial activity, human biomarker analyses) to inform safe working practices and better environmental strategies for resource exploitation, particularly in the copper belt region. Whilst the RS-DFID call will fund African PhD students in African institutions, there are opportunities for UK students to learn environmental science in tropical environments and to develop their wider understanding. Two-way exchange of students and research staff will build the future collaborative partnerships to the benefit of SEGH and African science capacity.

Dr Michael Watts

BGS-University of Nottingham Centre for Environmental Geochemistry



Royal Society for the network grant funding and the BGS Global initiative.

Related reports:

Joy E et al. (2014). Dietary Mineral Supplies in Africa, Plant Physiologia, in press DOI: 10.1111/ppl.12144. 

Hurst R, Siyame EWP, Young SD, Chilimba ADC, Joy EJM, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Chilima B, Gondwe J, Kang'ombe D, Stein AJ, Fairweather-Tait SJ, Gibson RS, Kalimbira A, Broadley MR (2013). Soil-type influences human selenium status and underlies widespread selenium deficiency risks in Malawi. Scientific Reports, 3, 1425.

Chilimba ADC, Young SD, Black CR, Rogerson KB, Ander EL, Watts M, Lammel J, Broadley MR (2011). Maize grain and soil surveys reveal suboptimal dietary selenium intake is widespread in Malawi. Scientific Reports, 1, 72.

Broadley MR, Chilimba ADC, Joy E, Young SD, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Hurst R, Fairweather-Tait SJ, White PJ, Gibson RS (2012). Dietary requirements for magnesium but not calcium are likely to be met in Malawi based on national food supply data. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 82, 192-199.

Joy EJM, Young SD, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts, MJ, Broadley MR (2013). Risk of dietary magnesium deficiency is low in most African countries based on food supply data. Plant and Soil, doi:10.1007/s11104-012-1388-z.

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