Dr. Watu Wamae: Fostering Scientific Innovation

Our newest board member, Dr. Watu Wamae is a researcher at the University of Oxford working with the Africa Oxford Initiative, which provides an enabling environment for researchers and students for entrepreneurship, innovation and research leadership. We are thrilled to have her as a part of our board and were grateful for the chance to sit down with her and hear more about her career, how she started, and the potential she sees in Africa’s future!

What is your background? What journey led you to your current role? 

My whole university education was about understanding how African countries can move to the next level, trying to figure out the key ingredients that enable a country to make a permanent shift toward further development. I began at the University of Nairobi and I remember the fresh faced teenager queuing to register for undergraduate classes. There was no online registration at the time, and as we were waiting in Nairobi’s August cold, I thought, I have to do a PhD because I have a major problem to tackle! That problem was related to Kenya’s development. 

We know that even countries we think of now as developed were not always that way. We know that Germany, for example, was in complete shambles and razed to the ground after the Second World War but managed to rebuild itself. America wasn't always where it is now. The UK and other parts of Europe have histories that include extreme poverty. So I knew that Africa was not poor because people were lazy or stupid. I was convinced that things could be turned around. There was (and still is) a lot of media coverage framing Africa as this hopeless continent, but I knew it wasn’t hopeless. That’s where my journey began.  

I moved from the University of Nairobi and went to France where I studied international economics. At the time, I thought the problems Africa was facing had to do with unfair trade practices, where certain countries sell raw materials for very little versus other countries that manufacture technology-intensive products. I had a stint in several international organisations  such as the World Trade Organization, driven by the desire to understand how international trade rules stymie the development of  African economies. After a while, however, it dawned on me that this wasn’t just about trade; it was a structural problem. It's not about tinkering with laws and regulations, it’s about embedding a trajectory that will make a complete transformation. 

For me, it boils down to the role of science in improving livelihoods. 

I ended up doing a PhD that was focused on the key ingredients that have helped countries move ahead. What exactly did they do? How did they change their trajectory? I spent time as a researcher at different universities, mostly in Europe, but also in South Africa, Brazil, and Kenya. 

When it comes to innovation, what do you think are the most essential aspects of successfully creating solutions? 

The word “innovation” is used in many different ways, but I’m most interested in focusing on innovation that is actually based on translating science to solutions, and goes beyond re-organisation of services. I want to support innovation that eradicates diseases, comes up with approaches for diagnostics that capture tropical diseases for children more easily, or develops therapeutics modelled on Africa’s genetic diversity. This cutting edge type of science contributes significantly to structural change, leapfrogging solutions and long-lasting impacts.

It is also important to connect science-based solutions with business ventures that bring those solutions to the market. The work I'm currently doing on the Health Innovation Platform came out of my research on exactly how universities versus industry contribute to the development of  capabilities poised for structural transformation. Universities are where the research happens, so what is going on in that space within Africa? Are there new ways of engaging with research at the university level that can help create new pathways that make a difference? It is vitally important that scientific research being conducted on the continent is well funded locally and structures are in place to support its application to Africa-specific problems. 

Additionally, we need to make sure we are investing in technology that will serve us in the future. During my research in Kenya, I focused on the pharmaceutical industry, looking at the long-term trajectory of how it came to be in the first place and the policies and regulations that have impacted it. Interestingly, Kenya had begun to develop a huge amount of vaccine capabilities in the 1970s, but then shifted focus to vaccines for neglected tropical diseases for animals such as East Coast fever and Rift Valley fever. Important as that might be, what this also did was disarticulate human vaccine production capabilities. Then when the pandemic happened 50 some years later, everyone was rushing around wondering, why can't we make vaccines ourselves? These capabilities must be built over time. One can't wake up one fine morning and decide that they are going to get it all set up out of thin air. By relying fully on other countries for things like vaccines, we have both missed out on the opportunity to contribute and also the opportunity to build capabilities over the long-term. Structural transformation is about the long game.

What do you look forward to when it comes to collaboration with Villgro Africa? 

I have aligned interests with Villgro Africa as an organisation and have known Dr. Robert Karanja for a very long time. In the noughties, when I was researching how universities, research institutions and industry could contribute more meaningfully to the creation of capabilities for structural transformation, he was working at KEMRI and we realised then that we had many overlapping interests. He went on to co-found Villgro Africa and I took my own path, but years later, we realised we’ve ended up with the same focus. Robert has great interest in pushing biomedical engineering, biomedical sciences and is setting up a bioescalator. Like me, he’s interested in innovation, but not only in the surface-level way it's often spoken about in Africa. We are most interested in African start-ups that are deep science led. A bioescalator will be pivotal in supporting such start-ups to make significant progress. If we’re trying to impact structural dynamics, that is the level of innovation that we need. 

The Africa Oxford Initiative is looking forward to setting up a more formal collaboration with Villgro Africa. While Villgro is grabbing one end of the stick, we have the possibility of pushing the other end. We have access to collaborators, be they Oxford-based researchers and beyond in different fields of expertise, or others collaborators to assist with technical elements. There is no reason why African scientists can’t come up with solutions that fit the unique African context, and people who are working in scientific fields very quickly come to a point where they need to engage globally with experts in specific niche areas. 

We want to push scientists in Africa to turn their research into real-life solutions. I am excited to work alongside Villgro Africa to support talented African innovator scientists, integrate the research and business sectors, and bring their solutions to a broader African audience.