Zimbabwe scientists shine

Sifelani Tsiko Senior Writer
As Zimbabwe celebrates three and half decades of independence against all odds, it has produced an exceptional pool of gifted individuals who have made significant contributions to the scientific and technological advancement of the country today. This ingenuity needs to be celebrated as the talented individuals

have made a meaningful difference through the provision of innovative solutions to everyday challenges facing the country.

Independence celebrations offers an opportunity to demonstrate how the country has managed to develop scientific policies and research institution that are key is solving some of the country’s problems. It is also relevant to measure how the scientific community has made a difference in the development trajectory of the country.

Since 1980, the Government has embraced the key role played by Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in addressing a myriad of problems facing the country.

Through the creation of strategic research institution – the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre (SIRDC) in February 1993 under the provisions of the Research Act of 1986, the Research Council of Zimbabwe, the National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe, Tobacco Research Board and a number of quasi-government scientific bodies, the Government demonstrated its commitment to promote research and development (R&D) to provide Zimbabwe with technological solutions for sustainable development.

In addition, to this the establishment of science-based universities such as the National University of Science and Technology, the Bindura University of Science Education, Chinhoyi University of Technology and the up-scaling of science and technology in the country’s other universities, polytechnics and colleges as well as private universities and independent research institutions has provided the country with vast knowledge to inform decision making and address issues such as providing equitable access to water, food, health, housing, environment, technology, adapting to climate change to secure the country’s future.

Furthermore, Zimbabwe established the Ministry of Science and Technology Development and launched the Second Science, Technology and Innovation Policy in 2012 which sought to make new technology an intergral part of individual and national development.

It launched the first policy in 2002 and ratified a number of regional and international agreements on science and technology, a clear testimony to the country’s commitment to embrace science and technology.

Government has responded pro-actively to the ICT revolution and computerisation has become a permanent feature of primary, secondary and tertiary education.

Science and technology has complemented other policies — energy, industry, health, agriculture and education while the promotion of biotechnology has opened new opportunities for Zimbabwe to increase food production, stem environmental degradation, improve health and drug development.

Perhaps the greatest achievements for Zimbabwe has been the development of human skills in science and technology which has seen specialist doctors, engineers, pharmacist, biochemists, ICT experts and a numerous other scientists going to other countries in the region and across the world to assume influential position.

Zimbabwe has for years pushed for investment in research and development (R&D) and commercialisation to catalyse economic development.

The overarching focus was really to bring manufacturing and manufacturing innovations back to Zimbabwe as a defining feature of our nation’s economy.

Promoting innovation and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) outreach programmes in schools and universities has been one prong of this effort to enthusiasm for the subjects and career development.

Zimbabwean scientific institutions have also been vibrant in engaging communities and integrating all knowledge, including traditional and indigenous knowledge and the social and human sciences to contribute to social transformation and to strengthen the social fabric of communities.

During the colonial era, most Black people were denied formal education and in fact many laws were passed to suppress the academic advancement of Blacks in the country.

Blacks had limited access to mainstream, quality education and university training. This meant that, for the most part, Blacks were shut out of professional occupations and confined to working in industries deemed acceptable for them, such as domestic services, labour on farms and plantations.

Against all odds, a small number of exceptionally talented Blacks were able to obtain an education and, through their life’s work, made significant contributions to the scientific and technological advancement of Zimbabwe.

Though the list is not exhaustive, The Herald shares some of the local scientists who became well known for their intellect and ingenuity and gained global prominence for innovations they developed over the past period.

Here are some of the achievements by Zimbabwean scientists and inventors which warrant celebration:

Renowned Zimbabwe biochemist Prof Christopher Chetsanga discovered two enzymes involved in the repair of damaged DNA. His scientific achievements included the discovery of: Formamido-pyrimidine DNA glycosylase that removes damaged 7-methylguanine from DNA (1979).

DNA cyclase that recluses imidazole rings of guanine and adenine damaged by x-irradiation (1983).

Another well-known Zimbabwean industrial chemist Dr Robson Mafoti made a breakthrough and designed fascia material which was later used successfully by leading American motor companies such as GM, Chrysler and Ford.

This became his first patent and one of his most prized and enduring innovations. He holds more than 13 United States patents for his inventions in the field of paints, plastics, decorative surfaces, sealants and adhesives.

The VIP — an invention from Zimbabwe
One of the most enduring inventions the country ever produced was the development of the Ventilated (Improved) Pit Latrine, dubbed the VIP or Blair Latrine by Dr Peter Morgan, who has been living and working in Zimbabwe for over 35 years, researching and developing water and sanitation technologies.

The simple technology which has been adopted by the United Nations and across the world comes with a ventilation pipe (covered with a durable fly screen on top) which reduces flies and odour.

More than 500 000 units of this type have been built in Zimbabwe alone and it has proven to work in Africa and across the world.

Dr Morgan won the Stockholm Water Prize in 2013 for his life-long work to protect the health and lives of millions of people through improved water and sanitation technologies.

He is also renowned for developing different water pump systems such as the Blair hand pump (also known as the Zimbabwe Bush Pump <http://www.lifewater.ca/ndexbush.htm>) or the spiral water wheel <http://www.lurkertech.com/chris/eco/pump/morgan/tripod/> pump.

The Brains Behind Dwarf Maize Hybrid
Zimbabwe is one of the first few countries in the world to develop hybrid maize varieties, making it one of the giants of agricultural scientific research in Africa.

Despite the challenges facing scientists in this field, Zimbabweans must take pride in their scientific reputation which led local agricultural experts to develop the SR52 maize hybrid as far back as the early 1950s, boosting production of one of the single most planted crops in the country and the entire continent.

Over the past 35 years, the country has produced numerous soya, tobacco, cotton, maize, sorghum and millet, groundnuts and cowpea varieties which has helped to improve yields. During the 1990s, the late Dr Samuel Muchena and other researchers at the Centre for Fertiliser Development established by the AU developed the AC31 and AC71 drought resistant maize crop varieties which required less fertiliser and rain. These varieties are on demand in Zimbabwe and in the Sadc region as they address challenges of lack 0f fertilizers, droughts and food security.

Afrosoft Engineering
A Zimbabwean company which has managed to break the monopoly of transnational companies in the field of software development in the ICT sector. The company developed a fully integrated banking system for the domestic and regional market, a Pension Fund Management System being used by two institutions, and a Health Insurance System. This ICT firm also has the Local Authorities System for rural and urban councils and more than 20 local authorities are now using this system.

Afrosoft successfully introduced the Railway Wagon Tracking System at the National Railways of Zimbabwe and immigration system at the Beitbridge border post.

The firm also developed an Electricity Demand-side Management System that has the potential to enhance efficient energy use.

e-Hurudza Corporation
Formed in 2003, e-Hurudza has developed computer software tailor-made for the Zimbabwean farmer to enhance farming operations. It targets commercial and communal farmers. The software package is now being used by more than 167 farmers and covers crops, beef and farm administration system, poultry and accounting.

Scientific Industrial and Research Development Centre

This is a national centre of excellence in scientific research in more than 11 areas of specialisation. Some of the major areas of study include building and technology, informatics, biotechnology, metallurgical research, business operations, food and biotechnology, environment and remote sensing, production and engineering and electronics and communication. The centre has developed a number of innovations which include the SLATE package that has laboratory equipment for basic science teaching, foundry products and roofing tiles. Sirdc innovations have been replicated throughout the continent to help industrialise Africa.

Water-powered engine innovation
A Harare-based engineer Jeremia Sundire invented a hydro engine powered by water which was recognised by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo) and the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (Aripo). The engineer invented the water-powered engine which can generate electricity for domestic use using between 40 and 60 litres of water. He invented the engine in 2009.

Zim Medical Milestone

In 2014, Zimbabwe scaled new heights in its medical history after a team of local surgeons performed the first major operation on Siamese twins which were born in April last year. The team made up of paediatric surgeons, doctors and nurses successfully separated a pair of twins born joined through their lower chests and abdomen at Harare Central Hospital.

The twins — who were joined from the lower chest to the upper abdomen and shared a liver — were born on April 22 this year to a Murehwa couple. Surgeons separated them in an eight-hour operation which also involved dividing their shared liver in two.

Zimbabwe has had five documented cases of conjoined twins since 1980 when the country gained its independence and only one was referred outside the country while in 2 cases the babies died before surgery.

Zimbabwean scientist breaks new ground
In a 2013 study by Dr Desmond Manatsa, a climate science expert from Bindura University of Science Education showed that the rise in surface air temperatures in southern Africa over the past two decades could have been due to the loss of upper atmospheric ozone over Antarctica (South Pole).This work was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The findings suggest that the closure of the Antarctic ozone hole could lead to a reduction in surface air temperatures in southern Africa.

This contradicts the current view by scientists on the surface air temperature warming over the sub-continent which is attributed to greenhouse gases.

The research team led by Manatsa who was working with colleagues from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) used reanalysis data to compare the climate of southern Africa before and after the development of the Antarctic ozone hole. They found that a shift in Southern Hemisphere circulation resulting from the development of the ozone hole coincided with the intensification of a low pressure system over southern Africa — which in turn, was associated with the flux of warm air from the lower latitudes to southern Africa.

Eye specialist of note
Renowned eye specialist and holder of the International Ophthalmologist Education Award, Dr Solomon Guramatunhu has become a global icon who has spearheaded eye treatment programmes for the poor in African countries such as Zambia, Namibia and Angola as well as Vietnam.

He is the founding president of the Ophthalmological Society of Zimbabwe and the founding chairman of Eyes for Africa. He is also a member of the American Society of Cataracts and Refractive Surgeons, the European Society of Cataracts and Refractive Surgeons, the International Society of Refractive Surgery, the Corneal Society, the European Vitreo-retinal Society and Euretina. He has helped mobilise funds for eye treatment programmes in Zimbabwe as well as supporting the Copota School for the Blind in Masvingo. He has made a difference for Zimbabwe and Africa through his commitment and dedication in the field of ophthalmology.

This is just a small crop of the bigger ones of Zimbabwean scientists who had the unmistakable stamp of genius which has made it very difficult to erase the quality of their works and philosophy into the dustbin of history. Achievements by numerous other local scientists are still not recorded and publicised.

Despite the domination of inventors from rich and powerful industrialised countries, innovations by Zimbabweans scientists have proven to be useful to mankind.

And as we celebrate the 35th independence anniversary, the truth is emerging about the achievements of black scientists who never made it to most European achievement history books.

“The quality of their works and philosophy still astonishes the world. Since in a world dominated by slavers and colonialists, the occurrence of high material or intellectual value in Africa is a racial taboo, questions that would ordinarily require research and accurate reporting were turned into matters of furious controversy,” wrote Ayi Kwei Armah in article in 2006, demonstrating the power of neglected and under-reported scientific achievements by Ancient Africans.

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