World Federation of Science Journalists

Nairobi team takes all african science as its beat

April 6, 2009

There’s a new voice in science reporting coming out of Kenya but taking all of Africa for its beat.

Up and running only since June 2008, Science Africa, is a work of a Nairobi editorial team under the direction of Otula Owuor, who started working on it as he was winding down his part in a WFSJ mentoring project. The mentoring had a strong part in his inspiration.

“I saw that there is still room for popularization of science in Africa and the Middle East. We have used the WFSJ network to generate articles or get specific info from other countries or regions,” he says.

“We wanted to push science to the top of development agenda with much focus on utilization or socio-economic impact.”

The result is a colourful, approachable magazine packed with stories on basic research, health, agriculture and communications technology, with sometimes robust opinion, but always on a solidly factual foundation.

Science Africa covers

For a look at Owuor’s “socio-economic impact,” consider the March 2009 issue’s front page, flagging these stories inside under a banner head “Doctors’ Woes”:
  • Clinical and surgical tragedies in Kenya
  • Return home, Nigerian doctors told
  • African health workers flooding the rich West
  • First instalment of six part series on Africa’s health workers
Inside this issue as well, there’s an edited speech by the director of Kenya Industrial Development Research Institute flanked by a photo feature on low-tech devices for farmers. There’s an aloe vera gel extraction machine, a portable arc welder, a rice sheller, an extrator and filter for honey, a soap plodder, a cotton gin, a fruit pulper for jams, and a nutcracker.

It looks a lot like real economic development for real people.

Reporters get close to real people on assignments. Clementine Osodo, recently out of journalism school and in the front lines ever since, says a story “that really touched me” was a farmers field day which coincided with the commissioning of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre screening site at Kiboko in Central Province.

She recounts “how farmers streamed to the site to learn of new innovations that they believed would help them curb the current food crisis in Kenya. This was a sign of determination to embrace science and technology to improve livelihood in Kenya.”

As well she covered a voluntary HIV testing program at Lurambi Kakamega in Kenya’s Western Province. “This campaign to me was more than successful since a record 41,040 went for voluntary HIV testing in a period of five days.” All these people “contributed to the national plan which aims to have 80 per cent of adult Kenyans knowing their HIV status by 2012.

For the sense of commitment, even indignation, motivating Science Africa, the line story in the November 2008 issue is a good example. The issue was devoted to genetically modified crops and food products and the front page took on opponents of GM crops, suggesting they get their own house in order first.

“Propaganda peddling antibiotechnology groups from Europe, who have invaded Kenya lately to fight the much needed Biosafety Bill, have more work to do back home. Their own European Union commissioned study says that at least 69 grocery products labelled as containing genetically modified ingredients are on sale across Europe clearly indicating that what the consumers say [does] not relate with what they do.”

The story quotes from the EU study, which concluded that people who buy GM-labelled products sometimes tell pollsters that they don’t.

Science Africa had this EU study on its cover a month after it was made public – staying on top of breaking news despite the lead time required by magazines.

Getting to this editorial level wasn’t easy financially. Owuor says, “The first three issues were from my pocket.” And – a refrain familiar to publishers everywhere – companies who do buy ads take at least a month to pay up. But he says there are more and more subscriptions, and “we are beginning to be taken seriously and more ads and supplements could be coming.

“We started with minimal but it is bound to improve.”

The magazine’s offices are in the outskirts of Nairobi and Owuor set aside one room in his home for doing magazine work. “We all meet for three hours every Monday and Friday, unlike the daily meetings we had when we started.”

Otula says the work of the magazine’s core editorial team is augmented by contributions from “academics, researchers etc. who have some interest in writing and are happy to be associated with Science Africa.

“We have received articles and information from journalists in WFSJ networks, like Onche Bishop and Michael Simire in Nigeria and Mabutho Ngcobo and Christina Scott in South Africa. There is also Dora Shey in Cameroun and Esther Nakkazie in Uganda. We use articles from especially if linked to Africa.”

Nairobi is home to the United Nations Environment Program headquarters and the African Academy of Sciences, so it draws many activities linked to science and technology. Otula calls it “a major conference centre,” and the flow of invitations to cover them means it’s sometimes hard to break away and get out in the field.

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