AAUN can help universities to expand capacity and accelerate progress

AAUN Forum participants were offered an inspiring example of how catalytic funding from AAUN can kickstart research which has the potential to significantly improve people’s health across the African continent and also bring benefit to Australia.

“We know the green revolution has helped us achieve more food production but we still have an iron and zinc deficiency which is impacting women and children through anaemia, wasting and stunting in many parts of Africa and South Asia,” said Professor Wallace Cowling from the Institute of Agriculture at the University of Western Australia.

“Many people have written about how there are very simple solutions for increasing zinc and iron if you can get it into the diet. The problem is getting it into the diet – and it’s not necessarily happening in Africa.

“In our AAUN project proposal meeting we asked, ‘Why can’t we increase iron and zinc in the common bean – which, in Africa, is eaten as a staple food and is a very important source of protein?’

“Happily, we were able to attract the attention of AAUN and the Australian Centre for Agricultural Research (ACIAR) to try to get plant breeding to solve these problems.”

Professor Cowling said seed funding for the project from AAUN’s Partnership and Research Development Fund had ultimately sparked a five-year program of research which had galvanised plant breeders in both continents and would conclude in June 2024.

“We will know if the project has been successful if, by the end of it, we have selected beans that are 30 per cent faster cooking, 15 per cent higher in seed iron and 10 per cent higher in seed zinc, and that these new varieties are acceptable to African consumers.”

Professor Thandi Mgwebi, DVC Research Nelson Mandela University, who also spoke in the forum session on “Education, research and innovation synergies across AAUN and regions” said universities in both continents played an important role in changing the future of their nations and interconnected world.

“The success of this network lies in the cohesion and in the strategic plan. But also, what makes it distinct, is the monitoring, evaluation and learning this network does.

“We have to provoke progress. We have to provoke change. And together we can do that by focusing on cross-continental research collaborations, which we are already doing through the seed funding that this network provides – hoping that these seed grants will grow into something bigger.”

Professor Mgwebi said AAUN should also be intentional about student exchange programs, joint degree programs, shared research facilities, innovation hubs and incubators, community engagement initiatives, transfer of technology and commercialisation.

“The National Research Foundation of South Africa has an industry engagement strategy which is really focused on getting academia and industry working together, and it is such initiatives that we can use to implement opportunities that are emerging from the AAUN.”

Executive Co-Chair of AAUN (Australia), Professor John Hearn said AAUN was trying to get the best of universities from across Africa and Australia to “nail mutual challenges”.

Through his leadership of AAUN and other networks, he’d found what worked best in in this respect was equal partnership – genuine equal partnership through governance, leadership, strategy, programs, people, diversity, gender, geography, and involving early career researchers.

“What universities can do,” he said, “is to use networks (like AAUN) as fleet, flexible, targeted, innovative instruments that can try out new things, new programs, and implement them to improve, innovate, and impact. So, capacity can be expanded, progress can be accelerated, new opportunities can be made for established and early career researchers and one can have all forms of mobility in transforming experience and culture.”

The sticking point was resources, he said. “It’s great to have a lot of ideas; to have visions. But if you haven’t got any resources, these are not going to go far. And I think we have to figure out new ways AAUN can attract funds both from our universities and from our governments, so we have the resources to make sure that these initiatives work.”


The AAUN Forum held in Perth from 4-5 September was co-hosted by Curtin University.