My name is Hannah Maytum, and I’m one of the four senior research development managers at Lancaster. I started in January 2016 in this brand new role, and my job is primarily to support large strategic research funding bids in the areas of engineering, physical sciences and natural sciences.
As part of this role, I have been working with my colleagues Mandy Dillon, Kirk Semple, Ruth Alcock, Akan Odon, and Natalie Miller to deliver an event at our campus in Accra, Ghana. With support from facilitator Dee Hennessey (of Creative Exchange) and our superb colleagues at LU Ghana, we designed, organised and delivered a 3 day event – the Ghana International Springboard, 22-24th November 2016.
The aim of the event was to bring together academics from LU in the UK, with academics and other stakeholders from Ghana, Nigeria and beyond, to discuss working in partnership, and to make new connections and collaborations, with the tantalising prospect of a bit of pump priming funding at the end. As you can imagine, I’m going to say that the event was a roaring success (else why would I be gracing your screens??) – but it really was. There was a genuine sense of valuable new relationships being made, a strong sense of partnership, and fun (yes fun), even for those who didn’t come away with funding. This event was only made possible by funding from EPSRC, which Lancaster received under the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) institutional sponsorship stream. If you’re wondering what GCRF is, I might ask if you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last year, but essentially it’s the requirement set by Government that a significant part of the research budget (£1.5bn) be spent on research which will have impact in a developing country (or countries) across the world (ODA compliance). For me, a key part of this agenda is to ask whether we really understand the issues being faced in developing countries and how we can help. I was keen that the Springboard event really wasn’t LU rocking up in Ghana and saying “hey, look at all this amazing stuff we do and we’ve come here to solve all your problems”, but it was about listening to, and understanding, the African point of view.
It’s been shown time and time again that Western solutions are not a one stop shop for developing countries, and that real engagement, relationships and working together is the only way forward. The event started with some initial getting to know each other, then splitting into groups, with each group led by one of our African colleagues. A few hours later, the atmosphere of the event had changed; there was a buzz, an excitement and some real sparks being created between people. One of the LU UK academics later said, ‘I thought as I have family in Kenya and have travelled there many times, that I understood Africa. I now know I was wrong – I have a much better grasp of what is needed.’ I would partly attribute this buzz and excitement to have come from an inspiring talk from Cynthia Forson, our Deputy Provost at LU Ghana. Cynthia is Ghanaian, and has worked in both the UK and Ghana, and had some very helpful insights. Firstly – her words provided the title of this post and is the first bit of advice we should all take when thinking about research with a developing country (but especially so in an African context).
Secondly, there is such a thing as ‘Africa time’ – we need to ensure we’re relaxed about timings. Going with the flow is definitely the order of the day when organising and delivering events in Africa. Thirdly – Africa is a continent and not a country, and that the way things are done there are not wrong, they’re just a different way of looking at things. A perfect example of this struck me whilst travelling around Accra. We saw many people selling items, such as food and drink, toilet rolls, fabric etc. to passing motorists. In our Western view, we might think why on Earth would we want to buy things whilst sat in traffic when we can order from our homes or do all our shopping in one place? But what if we looked at it differently – and saw the shops coming to us rather than the other way around? Then it becomes simply a different business model. And in terms of the LU approach to Global Challenges, we want to foster a true sense of partnership based on listening and understanding – and where not just research, but also the innovation which builds on it, is rooted in the local context, informed by local perspectives, with our Western hats well and truly left behind.