Meet the Malawian awardees of the University’s Africa Doctoral Fellowship scheme

Published on 5 September 2023

The University of Dundee has launched a multi-million pound Doctoral Fellowship scheme that will bring African researchers to Dundee to complete their doctorates

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The Doctoral Fellowship Scheme is a central element of the University’s Africa Strategy which reflects the commitment to broadening research ties and capacity building with strategic partners across the continent. 

The scheme is a commitment to funding 25 PhD places for candidates across Africa over the course of 10 years, with a particular focus on PhD projects that aim to tackle issues throughout the continent.  

The first five awardees are set to travel to Dundee this academic year.

Three Malawian individuals, from Kamuzu University of Health Sciences (KUHeS), the University of Malawi (UNIMA), and Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST), are among the first cohort of successful awardees of the scheme. They will undertake PhDs at Dundee that focus on healthcare, deforestation and groundwater sustainability.  

Esther Mabedi, a lecturer in Earth Sciences at MUST, will undertake research within Dundee’s School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law that looks to advance methods for assessing, mapping and managing risks to groundwater quality and access, with a particular focus on rural southern Malawi. 

Groundwater forms the backbone of drinking and domestic-use water service provision in rural Malawi, estimated to support up to 85% of the rural population. However, management of groundwater supplies involves addressing a number of difficult challenges, including maintenance of numerous communal supply points (typically hand-pumped boreholes) from which it is accessed, and risks of contamination from geogenic and anthropological pollutants. 

Esther hopes her research will help overcome these challenges. 

“Groundwater is central to our rural areas and provides a lot of things for our communities,” she said. “Access points are places where communities converge and socialise - it’s more than just a source for us. Having it at its optimal quality and quantity is crucial. 

“Throughout my PhD I will be working with a real community in Malawi, looking at their approach in groundwater management and water provision, directly addressing and trying to improve social problems around water supply with the knowledge of science. 

“My research has the potential to inform policy in-country and will have a huge impact on improving how people access water in Malawi - it can inform how best we can manage water supply, looking at how we ensure that the the water is of good quality all of the time, and how we share information about the the water supply system. Being able to study that and provide that for these people is important to me. 

“A PhD has always been on my mind, and this is a very exciting opportunity that offers the chance to study at one of the best universities in Scotland.”

Colleen Mbughi, lecturer in Geography at UNIMA, will also undertake research in the University’s School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law. Her project will look at the changing forest livelihoods in Malawi, with a particular focus on deforestation and livelihood challenges for young people in forest communities. 

There is a need for experts in physical geography and research on land use and land cover changes in Malawi. Challenges posed by changes in land cover caused by deforestation, which includes loss of soil fertility, flooding, climate change and variability, landslides, among others, have serious implications on agriculture and sustainable development, and directly affects forest communities who depend on the land.

“Deforestation is a huge problem in Malawi and is happening at a very high rate,” said Colleen. “However, the problem of deforestation is very difficult to handle – communities cut down trees and use them to earn a living, either selling it as wood for energy or construction, making charcoal to sell, and in some cases for medicinal purposes.

“Here in Malawi, people rely on the forest for their livelihood. They use the forest to survive, as a source of income and other basic needs. Most of the young people in these communities are unemployed and depend on the forest to earn a living. 

“Deforestation directly affects them – if the trees aren't there anymore, how will they earn a living? The findings of my project will provide answers on how we stop deforestation and have sustainable forest development.

“I'm excited to deepen my knowledge in an area I am interested in.”

Gervasio Nyakax, a lecturer at KUHeS, will pursue a PhD in Medical Education at Dundee and will be based at the University’s Centre for Medical Education. He has a specific interest in simulation education and low-cost virtual reality and will investigate how such tools can be implemented in a resource poor setting to improve competencies among health professionals.

Healthcare students at KUHeS currently practice in hospitals, in real wards with real patients. Gervasio explained how this poses a risk to patient safety. 

He said, “Our literature shows that there are issues – in some cases, our students do not have the skills to handle patients, ultimately bringing harm. 

“My interest is looking at how we can improve student competence, skills and safety, and the use of virtual reality poses a low risk. When students acquire skills on the bedside of patients, in real hospitals, errors result in real harm. When practicing using virtual reality tools, there is room for mistakes, an opportunity to learn from mistakes and perfect skills. 

“We are coming from a low to middle income country, where we cannot afford to purchase advanced tools. Low-cost tools, such as virtual reality headsets, can replicate the actual environment in the wards. Students can then visualise the wards, see the patient and the condition and decide how they proceed with procedures. 

“My research will look at the skills of our students prior to any implementation of virtual reality tools, then introducing the tool and analysing whether this results in an improvement in skills and competency. I am hoping that after that, if the results are positive, we can roll out a project at KUHeS of the use of such tools in our curriculum.”

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