28 No. 3
Chemistry in Kenya—Its Contribution to a Healthy Environment and Socio-Economic Development
by Sidney F.A. Kettle
In July 2005 the Kenyan Government announced a 5-year plan under which, by 2010, 50 percent of all university students will be scientists. This project served as a fitting background for the 5th Annual International Conference organized by the Kenya Chemical Society, which took place at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, on 22–26 August 2005. The author also attended the first of these meetings and was thus able to make a comparison that showed a clear evolution over the last several years.
Funds are most readily available for research relevant to the Kenyan economy, and so it is understandable that a good portion of the papers presented at the conference dealt with local plant products (particularly those with medicinal potential) and local environmental issues (particularly turning waste into useful materials). However, between the two meetings that the author attended, there has clearly been an increase in collaboration between Kenyan scientists and research groups in developed countries. This collaboration enabled, at the most recent meeting, presentations reporting on work entailing the use of state-of-art techniques. Thus, the structures of some local plant products were described at a level of detail and certainty that was absent 12 years ago. It became clear that Kenya has no shortage of able and aware chemists who can be expected to make an increasing contribution to future chemical research worldwide.
Although there were poster sessions at the conference, virtually all presentations were oral. Although about half of the presentations were made by research students or those who had only recently completed their work, there was no problem with stage fright—one student even offered to answer questions on behalf of her research supervisor, who had to be absent at the time. The general interest in the meeting was reflected in the attendance levels, which were good from start to finish, with no evident falling-off with time. On the final day, in fact, lunch had to be pushed back an hour because of the number of questions.
About a third of the 16 plenaries were presented by Kenyan chemists, and like those presented by scientists invited from abroad, they tended to focus on chemistry topics with local relevance. Topics included the use of clones to gain insights into long-term fertilizer use (Owour), phytochemical studies on popular Kenyan medicinal plants (Midiwo), and, surprising but relevant, the possible use of rice husk ash for low-cost housing (Kamau). Less surprising, but no less relevant, were plenary lectures on the use of indigenous herbs for treating malaria (Chhabra) and tuberculosis (Rajab). There were also presentations that had potential political implications: Wandiga on vulnerability to climate-induced highland malaria, Getenga on pesticide residues, and, clearly, Karanja on the need for a new approach to university research and technological development in Kenya.
Among the lecturers from outside of Kenya, Carles Codina (Barcelona) dealt with natural antioxidants, Keremire (Uganda) reviewed the health benefits of anthocyanins, and Masaaki Kai (Nagasaki) described some very new and sensitive methods of detecting DNA. Chawla (New Delhi) detailed some very simple but effective methods of extending the shelf life of fruit and vegetables without using refrigeration. Liebscher (Berlin) lectured on some novel cyclic peroxides for use as antimalarial compounds. More theoretical were Kruger (Durban), who reported on related preparative and ab initio work on simple acetylation reactions, and Kettle (Norwich), who discussed symmetry and spectroscopy.
There were more than 60 contributed papers, the majority from Kenyans, of course, but also including plenty from authors of other countries: South Africa, Spain, Uganda, Norway, Germany, Madagascar, the Ivory Coast, the United States, Tanzania, Sweden, Botswana, Japan, Belarus, and the United Kingdom. Some of these same countries also appeared on the list of sponsors. The author suspects that world interest in chemistry in Kenya will continue to increase. One plenary commented that the threat of litigation in many developed nations—together with health and safety controls—has severely limited the "hands-on" experience of chemistry students in these countries. No such restrictions exist in Kenya, and, with the backing indicated at the beginning of this article, in the future it will be the most evidently able students who study chemistry. Scientists of more than 12 nationalities, representing about one in 10 participants, attended this meeting, and the author believes that participation in future meetings in this series will increase considerably.
Kenya Chemical Society is an Associate
National Adhering Organizations of IUPAC. Prof.
Shem O. Wandiga, chairman of the society, can be reached
by e-mail at <[email protected]>.
In September 2006, an IUPAC-sponsored conference on
Occupational Health and Safety Management in East
Africa will take place in Nairobi.
Sidney F.A. Kettle <[email protected]> is professor at the School of Chemical Sciences at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.
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