Generating knowledge for societal benefit through the UK-SA Research Chairs Programme

One in four children in South Africa remain stunted, despite a comprehensive social grant system, according to research by the UK-South Africa Bilateral Research Chair in Social Protection for Food Security at the University of the Western Cape, Prof.  Stephen Devereux.


"The social protection for food security research agenda is motivated by the fact that food insecurity in South Africa remains extremely high. Child stunting has not fallen below 25% since the early 1990s," Prof. Devereux said during a UK-SA Newton Fund partnership symposium held at the National Research Foundation this week.


This was the case, Prof. Devereux said, despite the fact that food production exceeds consumption needs, and despite the existence of a comprehensive system of child support grants that has reached 12 million children since its introduction in 1994.


Prof. Devereux explained that his research chair aims to address the Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty, preventing hunger and reducing inequalities, while indirectly promoting good health, gender equality and quality education, among others.


The chair forms part of the UK-SA Research Chairs Programme, which was launched two years ago to expand the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) through collaborative partnership.


Sponsored through the National Research Foundation, the British Council and the British Academy, the programme is aimed at improving the extent, delivery and impact of research capacity and providing mentorship opportunities for emerging researchers at South African universities.


One of the beneficiaries of the programme, Zona Ndondo, was supervised by Prof. Devereux and obtained her master's degree in development studies, focusing on a comparative analysis of alternative food security indicators relating to farmworkers in the Northern Cape.


The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has lauded the partnership as beneficial to South Africa, particularly in the areas of human capital development and innovation.


"The UK-SA Newton Fund partnership has been a pillar of our cooperation and has produced impressive outcomes in most areas," Mr Khaya Sishuba, Director for Bilateral Relations (Europe and Gulf States) at the DSI, told the symposium. "Focusing on people, translation and research strands, we have now witnessed one of the most successful collaborations in our bilateral country portfolio, lifting our relations to an all-time high."


Three UK-SA Bilateral Research Chairs have been awarded, in Political Theory, Social Protection for Food Security, and Ocean Science and Marine Food Security. In addition, two SA-Africa-UK Trilateral Research Chairs have been awarded, in Transformative Innovation, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Sustainable Development, and Mainstreaming Gender for Energy Security in Poor Urban Environments.


The latter chair is held by Prof. Josephine Musango of Stellenbosch University. As the chair, Prof. Musango collaborates with Dr Amollo Ambole of the University of Nairobi in Kenya and Dr Fabrizio Ceschin of Brunel University London in exploring gender-informed innovations and commercialisation opportunities in poor urban societies.


Mr David Barnes, Head of the UK Science & Innovation Network in South Africa, stressed the importance of the strategic collaborations that were being formed between the United Kingdom and South Africa, and also the trilateral partnership with Kenya.


"Both the British and South African governments recognise the need to work collaboratively with partners across the globe to push the boundaries of knowledge. This is the concept behind the Newton Fund chairs, enabling leading researchers in their fields to access expertise in both countries and to build research capacity in South Africa and beyond into Africa," said Mr Barnes.


As climate change continues to take its toll on the environment globally, the main research focus of the UK-SA Bilateral Research Chair in Ocean Science and Marine Food Security is to understand the fundamental drivers of marine food security in the western Indian Ocean, and most importantly to help governments to deal with emerging humanitarian disasters in the region.


Prof. Michael Roberts of Nelson Mandela University, who holds the chair, said that ocean science was at the core of this endeavour. "Ultimately, the emphasis rests on using the best available ocean and ecosystem models to project future food security scenarios under varying states of ocean and climate change."


The sentiment expressed during the symposium was that under the UK-SA Newton Fund partnership, lives are being improved through health research, young innovators are being supported to commercialise their ideas, and hundreds of early-stage researchers are strengthening their work through international collaboration.


One such researcher, Dr Albano Troco, is a beneficiary of the Research Chair in Political Theory held by Prof. Lawrence Hamilton of the University of the Witwatersrand.


Dr Troco, whose research focused on electoral politics in post-war Angola between 2008 and 2017, obtained his PhD in July 2019 in record time. He acknowledged the impact of the Newton Fund in helping him reach this milestone. "The scholarship afforded me financial security to focus on the doctoral degree," Dr Troco said, adding: "I am the first PhD graduate in my family."


The UK-South Africa Newton Fund is part of the broader Newton Fund programme, which has a total UK government investment of £735 million up until 2021, with matched resources from partner countries. The UK-SA Newton Fund has already seen a co-investment of £30 million since its launch in 2014.



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