Director Prof Cheikh Mbow says he wants to convey that “the emerging risk for Africa, in general, can be addressed only if we establish transdisciplinarity”.

Music therapy, and how to communicate to the visually or aurally impaired, might not be the first topics that spring to mind when one thinks of a conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa. But in keeping with the transdisciplinary focus of the Future Africa research institute and campus at UP, they form part of its presentation at the Galien Africa Forum in Dakar, Senegal next week.

Future Africa’s director, Professor Cheikh Mbow, said the main message he wants to convey is that “the emerging health risk, the emerging environment risk, the emerging social risk and the emerging risk for Africa, in general, can be addressed only if we establish transdisciplinarity”.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, will speak at the inaugural opening on Thursday, 10 December. Later that day, Prof Mbow – who spoke at the inaugural forum two years ago – will introduce UP’s active research on COVID-19.

The forum is an initiative of the Galien Foundation, which recognizes and awards excellence in medical and pharmaceutical innovation that has the power to bring transformative changes.

Galien Forum USA 2020 was held in New York in October in a hybrid (in-person and digital) format. Galien Africa Forum will be hosted digitally from Dakar, and about 1 500 leading scientists, policymakers, and industry executives are expected to attend.

Future Africa’s 45-minute session, titled ‘Transdisciplinarity to Advance COVID-19 Response’, comprises a 20-minute video followed by a live Q&A. The video is an edited version of presentations from Future Africa Day on 18 November when various staffers highlighted their research, and reflected on how it is adding value to the Youth Empowerment and Health/Economic Responses to COVID-19, a project known as YEaH.

The United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has funded and collaborated with Future Africa on YEaH, through which more than 100 scientists from various disciplines aim to reach 2 000 students within the next few months.

YEaH focuses on four core interconnected activities:

  • empowering students with entrepreneurship skills;
  • internship and job-shadowing with private enterprises;
  • COVID-19 Science for Society programme; and
  • social skills for resilient communities.

YEaH works in transdisciplinary clusters, each led by one or more principal investigators (PIs). Due to their availability on the day of filming, those appearing in the video are sometimes not the PIs.

The UP staff members that appear in the video are:

Dr. Dawie Bornman and Muriel Serfontein-Jordaan, of the Department of Business Management, on startup management skills (Alex Antonites, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy, is the PI);

Dr. Osmond Mlonyeni, a project manager for the Innovation Africa@UP business unit, on food, nutrition job opportunities and agriculture enterprises’ skills training (Prof Bernard Slippers, the founding Director of Future Africa and the Director of UP’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI), is the other PI);

Stephan Dippenaar, of the Centre for the Study of Resilience (CSR), on transdisciplinary collaboration (CSR Director Prof Liesel Ebersöhn, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, is the PI);

Prof Wanda Markotter, Director of the Centre for Viral Zoonoses in the School of Medicine, on One Health & Young Academics on One Health practices (Prof Tiaan de Jager, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, and Prof Stephanie Burton of Future Africa and a Professor in Biochemistry, are the other PIs)

Prof Stephanie Burton – on student research support;

Prof Shakila Dada, a speech-language pathologist and Director of the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, on augmentative communication in a health crisis (composer Prof Alexander Johnson of the School of the Arts: Music is the other PI); and

Dr. Andeline Dos Santos, a music therapist, and lecturer at the School of the Arts, on the social dimensions COVID has created and the need for emotional stability, using music and other arts (her colleague Prof Johnson is the other PI).

“Nobody at government level could have imagined that music therapy was playing a role during COVID, but we have demonstrated that,” said Prof Mbow. “People focus on radio and TV communication for COVID-19 information, and forget about disabled people who cannot see and cannot hear, so augmented communication is important.”

YEaH falls under Future Africa’s COVID Research and Engagement Platform known as CORE-P, which is the outcome of a special UP meeting to address the pandemic’s challenges. Vice-Principal Prof Anton Ströh recommended they establish a platform, and a transdisciplinary one, “because COVID is a medical issue, but it has so many spin-offs in many aspects of society’’, said Prof Mbow, who was tasked to establish CORE-P.

Besides UNICEF’s role, the National Research Foundation (NRF) provided seed money, and the Carnegie Foundation is keen to support the internationalization of UP’s research on the topic, to ensure the lessons can inspire other countries in Africa.

Ultimately, this is helping fulfill Future Africa’s role of playing a diplomatic role in connecting Africa through science. “That’s our mandate and we do it,” said Prof Mbow.

The thinking is pan-African: Future Africa presents solutions driven by African scientists.  “We want to be more self-reliant on what we can achieve together as one community in Africa,” said Prof Mbow.

As part of the pre-forum of Galien Africa, 10 UP medical students, in partnership with the US Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), will represent South Africa in a leadership training session on 8 December.

Register here to view Future Africa’s presentation at the Galien Africa Forum on 10 December at 6.30pm (SAST).

- Author Gillian Anstey