Power of Illustration: Cartoons and Science Communication in Africa

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AbrahamBetween May and December 2013, I interned at Research Africa, a research and development media organisation based in Cape Town, South Africa. During my internship I explored the relationship between cartoons and research communication, with a general interest in experiences from Africa. To this end, I travelled within South Africa, and in Botswana, Kenya, and the UK, exploring this subject through interviews with a number of leading cartoonists, research communication practitioners, and researchers. Through my research I discovered that cartoons and cartoonists can play an important role in bringing new research and evidence to diverse audiences, including researchers, policy makers, but also the public. The medium of cartoons also has powerful potential to inform, trigger dialogue, and engage a range of audiences and thereby influence and shape understandings on key policy issues and topics. The challenge I identified in my research is how more cartoons and cartoonists can be inspired to use science and research as their subject matter.

Africa is a beautiful and promising continent, known for its enormous natural resources, rich and assorted cultures, and the economic opportunities that it offers to its inhabitants and the world.

But, to some, the continent has for a long time been known to be the “dark continent”. The image of the dark continent is the image of army generals who have held onto power for several decades, the image of hunger and humanitarian aid, the image of a continent that is somehow not quite up to scratch.

It is not my intention to explore  dominant  images of Africa,but rather, in acknowledging the Africa’s bright future, to contribute to some thinking on how the continent’s societal and environmental challenges and opportunities in Africa might be addressed specifically through strengthening  interaction and dialogue between researchers and the different audiences for which research outputs are intended.

Research works

Research and Development (R&D) is one of the areas that have been identified as a way forward in tackling Africa’s challenges. R&D can help Africa to advance as a continent, and to catch up in different areas of economic and social life with practices in developed countries. It is well-known that through investing in R&D, and innovation, a number of Asian countries were able to leapfrog their economic growth.

Research communication — that is, the efforts made by researchers, but also communication specialists to effective deliver research messages to key audiences — plays an important role in ensuring that knowledge created reaches a broader segment of society. In this sense, research communication and communicators have a role to play in building knowledge economies.

Good research communication can help to ensure that citizens of countries or members of communities are  informed on major decisions that affect them. Indeed, if societies are able to appreciate the knowledge produced by research dialogue is enriched, and individuals can be empowered to take decisions that are based on evidence.  Citizens  can now put pressure on policy-makers and business people to make decisions that benefit them.

However, research content as it is traditionally communicated — in peer-reviewed journals, conference papers, or posters — is often deemed complex for non-specialists individual, ordinary folk. As a result, it usually does not appeal to public audiences. In addition, where it is not interesting to the public, it is usually in competition with non-academic content, such as advertising, which typically takes limelight. The competitive, busy, nature of the information landscapes is arguably hindering research process to the extent that good scientific knowledge is not always successfully shared with the stakeholders it is intended to benefit.

My suggestion is that if science messages are formulated in ways that they might be understood by different audiences, then they are more likely to reach my grandmother in rural Botswana, a friend who is a city street sweeper, or a family member who works as a grounds man. Research can play a role in helping these individuals to make informed decisions on the way they plant new seed, their health and well-being, and perhaps most importantly, what they should expect from the leaders that serve them.

An exploratory project

Programmes such the IDRC Science Journalism Award support the popularisation of science or research results in the developing world as a tool for the effective transfer and translation of knowledge. As a participant in this   programme in 2013, I spent six months at Research Africa, and organisation based in Cape Town. In particular, I worked with and met a number of leading experts in science communication, and explored some of the ways in which research outputs from universities or think tanks might be popularised.

During my internship, I aimed to explore how African researchers and research managers might use cartoons and comics to disseminate knowledge to the different audiences: the public, policy makers, the business community, NGOs, and within academia. As an output of my research, I produced a short film to share the knowledge I gathered from the practitioners that I interacted with.

Research journey

My research process involved some travel within South Africa,  Botswana, UK, and Kenya to learn by observation and by meeting, interacting with, and interviewing some of the leading practitioners in the field of research communication and cartoons. Here are some of the highlights:

  • I visited the ZANews Network in Cape Town to meet producer, Thierry Cassuto, and to witness how they use live puppets and political satire to capture audiences.
  • I interviewed cartoon experts Harry Dugmore, Steve Kromberg and Joe Alfers at the Rhodes University School of Journalism.
  • I also attended the National Annual Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa. This is an annual event that attracts over 240 000 people every year from all over the world. Here, especially, I witnessed the power of visual and dramatic arts in communicating key social and political messages. For example, I attended the production Crazy Indian Boyz, which explored in a humourous way sensitivities around racial difference in South Africa. Other influential productions included The Zulu, Cracked Mirrors and Steve Biko — all communicated the South African past and current societal challenges in a compelling manner. John Kani, a leading actor and playwright, delivered a presentation on the importance of the arts in inspiring the sciences – an important moment in the development of my research process.
  • I traveled to Botswana to meet Albert Lekgaba, one of the country’s leading political cartoonists. He reflected on how he generates his works and how he designs compelling messages that aim to inspire viewers to think critically.
  • A significant period of my research fieldwork was spent in London where I was based at the Wellcome Trust, in the Public Engagement Department. Here I met experts in the field of science communication such as Stephen Webster, cartoons (Matteo Farinella, and public engagement and also visited the BBC. The commitment of the Wellcome Trust to engaging and communicating science to the public was both inspirational and a reminder of the importance of the work in an African context. During my research in London I had the opportunity to visit the Science Museum, science comedy shows, and young scientist gatherings held inside the museum. (I mean who does that in Africa?) Through one of the Trust-funded projects on science engagement, I was also fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to understand how products are designed to match consumer thoughts and taste buds, in particular, to make consumers buy something or salivate!
  • In Kenya, I visited the International Development Research Centre’s Regional Office for sub-Saharan Africa, and presented my thinking to a number of the programme staff.

What’s in a cartoon?

Cartoons can be a powerful tool for communicating complex subjects. Through my research I uncovered that cartoons can be used as “hooks” to improve the delivery of research content in ways that to appeal to different, perhaps more popular, audiences. But cartoons are not only as a tool to simply communicate complex subjects. They are also powerful in encouraging and stimulating imagination through satire. Humour is a powerful form of communication, humans have a tendency to remember things that make them laugh and smile.

Researchers and research managers can take better advantage of this powerful medium, by working together with cartoonists to generate new content and to reach audiences that may not be otherwise interested or engaged with their research content.

The end is the beginning

This blog represents a culmination of some of my internship work. However, it is also the beginning of the next phase of the research journey. Here are some of the questions and topics I am interested to further explore:

  • Balancing independence of cartoonists and the interests of the subject or Client they are working with/for
  • Can cartoons discredit or strengthen the science?
  • How can Africa build a critical mass of good research communicators?

Genome Adventures-Where science meets fun

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“Science should no longer be seen as being confined solely to laboratories.
Rather it should become an integral part of our daily lives and each of us should participate in its development” – Hon. Minister of Health Dorcas K Makgato.


Creative industry can use science to transform local economy – Mamela

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Published on Mmegi-January 14 2017

In an interview with Showbiz recently, the local science communicator Abraham Mamela said science or research is one of the areas that have been identified as potential areas that can help drive the economy and reduce the country’s heavy reliance on mining, diamonds in particular.

“Botswana has taken a stance to transform her economy to a knowledge economy. The creative industry offers an opportunity for Botswana to take advantage in making science an area of interest as well as inspiring the next generation. The creative industry offers an opportunity for Botswana to take advantage in making science an area of interest as well as inspiring the next generation,” he said.

Mamela called on the art industry to work closely with the science industry. He said that could help Batswana to look at science with a different view and understanding whilst at the same time creating job opportunities for young people. Mamela also stated that the creative industry could inspire science. He said scientists could get new ideas from the creative industry hence new ideas and creation in science.

“In the 90s there used to be a movie called the Night Rider about a car that could talk and drive itself, such cars are

in our door steps. IRobot is one of the movies that was loved and it is about robots and artificial intelligence. Such technology is just in our door steps and it looks like its going to be a big thing in the future,” he said.

He said Botswana could take advantage of such movies as she is beginning to build her knowledge economy. Mamela said local artists could inspire the future of science and technology by carrying the essence of products created in this country. He further urged both the private sector and the government to invest in that new opportunity so that Botswana science could benefit from that good gesture.

Mamela pointed out that science affects all, every day of the year, from the moment we wake up, all day long, and through the night. He said science affects all from the digital alarm clock, the weather report, the bus we ride in, the decision to eat a baked potato instead of fries, cell phone, the antibiotics that treat sore throat, the clean water that comes from the faucet, and the light that we turn off at the end of the day have all been by courtesy of science.

Power of illustration: Cartoons and science communication in Africa

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Researchers are always seeking ways to reach out to new and diverse audiences. What can they do to make sure that their content is appealing and competitive? Watch this video and share your views here on YouTube, or on my blog: http://www.abrahammamela.wordpress.com.

Lost in translation

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By Abraham Mamela



Francophone researchers in Africa are disadvantaged both financially and in terms of networking compared to their anglophone neighbours.

In 2011 Albert Legrand Fosso, an anthropologist from Cameroon, was delighted to travel to Rome to share his work at a medical conference. But an hour away from his talk, disaster struck: the organisers informed him he couldn’t present his work in his native French.

Despite travelling all that way, he didn’t give his presentation. It was doubly frustrating. Not only had he put a lot of energy and effort into preparing his talk—work that now proved in vain. But it also didn’t bode well for his future ability to share his research with scientists around the world, most of whom do not speak French.

Fosso’s language abilities serve him well in his day job at the Institute for Policies and Social Initiatives at the Catholic University of Central Africa in Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé. But, as indicated by the Rome conference, it has limited his ability to reach the international science stage.

“It is a challenge to publish in English journals, although I can understand and write in English. But the most frustrating part is having to communicate in English during international conferences. When we speak about international conferences, it supposes a linguistic diversity,” he says.

Africa’s linguistic divides, some harking back to colonial days, some to way before then, often hamper scientists in neighbouring countries from collaborating, says Issiaka Sombié, a research officer at the West African Health Organisation, based in Burkina Faso.

“Many Gambian researchers, who are anglophone, work with British and Ghanaian researchers instead of the francophone Senegalese researchers who are their only next-door neighbours,” he says.

Language also plays a part in funding success, Sombié says. Like many African researchers, those in francophone countries depend on international funding streams. But there are more opportunities available for researchers who master English than for those speaking only French.

There is also limited access to training in scientific writing and networking for francophone researchers, Sombiéexplains: “Generally, the anglophones are more pragmatic and less bureaucratic in their processes than francophone countries.”

Juliana Abe, a francophone researcher from Côte d’Ivoire, got around these challenges by becoming fluent in English. Funded by a grant from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, she is based in Nairobi, Kenya, which also helps put her in touch with anglophone funders.

Abe says she has friends who only know the English word for ‘hello’. Most of them pay translating agencies to convert their funding applications from French to English. But not all can afford this.

“I know brilliant students who have been denied funding because their English wasn’t solid enough. It is not always affordable for students to pay for translation of a proposal that may not be successful,” she says.

From the funders’ perspective, it can often be difficult to reach researchers in countries where the dominant language is different to the one used by the funder. Even bilingual funders, like Canada’s IDRC, finds researchers in francophone Africa difficult to reach.

This comes partly down to these countries’ unsupportive research environments, says Sue Godt, a senior programme officer for IDRC based in Nairobi.

“The research environment, which includes government commitments, governance, and investments, often needs to be bolstered and strengthened. Research and research management skills in many institutions also need to be strengthened, and the overall career path for researchers needs to be supported,” she says.

Going the extra mile

Linguistic challenges often mean that francophone researchers have to work twice as hard as their anglophone colleagues to achieve the same level of international success.

Fosso, for instance, has won an impressive half of the six research opportunities he has applied for. However, all came from French funding bodies.

Some researchers take English language training to improve their writing and speaking skills. This helps them engage with anglophone funders, and enables them to better network with researchers in the rest of the world.

Godt believes researchers in francophone Africa need better information about the opportunities open to them.

“Strengthened institutions can support researchers to prepare and submit quality proposals and can ensure good management of the funds and research implementation,” she says.

However, she adds, the funders themselves also have an important role to play to unlock francophone researchers’ potential.

“We need to be responsive and proactive to that context rather than expect researchers to come to us with their ideas, or to only engage with researchers through the mechanism of international calls,” she says.

One anglophone funder that has reached out to francophone researchers in Africa is the Wellcome Trust, a British medical research charity. The trust supports partnerships in West Africa between anglophone and francophone institutions, providing language training in both languages.

“The Wellcome Trust is aware of the language barriers in making applications to funding organisations. However the trust, as other funders, can not accommodate applications in all these languages,” says Jen Middleton, senior media officer at the Wellcome Trust.

However, Fosso thinks that science would benefit from a greater diversity of languages. He would like to see more journals, funders and international conferences accepting contributions in languages other than English.

“Science would benefit from it considerably,” he says.