Meet UCT’s SDG postdoctoral research fellows

30 August 2023 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo iStock. Read time 10 min.
Meet UCT’s six Sustainable Development Goals postdoctoral research fellows from Africa who are working to accelerate African-led projects that support the United Nations’ SDGs.
Meet UCT’s six Sustainable Development Goals postdoctoral research fellows from Africa who are working to accelerate African-led projects that support the United Nations’ SDGs.

“Transdisciplinary boundary breakers” best describes the six African Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) postdoctoral research fellows appointed by the University of Cape Town (UCT) following the International Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa, hosted at UCT in 2021.

A seventh SDG postdoctoral research fellow is yet to be appointed.

In the current cohort are:

  • Dr Hafte Gebrihet (Ethiopia)
  • Dr Cecilia Ojemaye (Nigeria)
  • Dr Solomon Uhunamure (Nigeria)
  • Dr Azza Ahmed (Sudan)
  • Dr Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón (Colombia)
  • Dr heeten bhagat (Zimbabwe)

Based in UCT’s various faculties, each of the fellows is working on transdisciplinary, collaborative research projects that accelerate African-led initiatives that support the United Nations’ (UN) SDGs, as well as the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

There are 17 SDG goals with 169 targets that all 191 UN member states are aiming to achieve by the year 2030. Broadly, the goals are to end poverty, ensure prosperity, and protect the planet. The African Union’s Agenda 2063 is described as Africa’s blueprint for transforming the continent into a future global powerhouse through inclusive and sustainable development.

The UCT initiative is led by Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation Professor Sue Harrison, and builds on the three-day, online event in 2021. This brought together African and global university networks, academics and practitioners, and other stakeholders and thought leaders with an interest in sustainable development.

It’s worth noting that UCT has made significant strides in developing both the UN and African agendas. In June this year, UCT was ranked 9th for clean water and sanitation, while also performing well in three other SDGs, according to an annual list of world university rankings published by Times Higher Education.

Meet the six SGD postdoctoral research fellows

Dr Hafte Gebrihet (Ethiopia)

Dr Gebrihet is a Doctor of Public and Development Management, specialising in the political economy of land reform. His supervisors are Professor Faizel Ismail, the director of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance (NMSPG) in the Faculty of Commerce; and Professor Brian Raftopoulos, a leading Zimbabwean scholar and activist, also based in the NMSPG.

Dr Gebrihet’s research focuses on building democratic governance and resilient institutions in Africa, with particular emphasis on achieving the SDGs and the African Union agenda of 2063.

He has over 10 years of research, community service, and teaching experience in Ethiopia and South Africa. He worked as a researcher, community service coordinator, and lecturer at Adigrat University, Ethiopia.

Gebrihet has published several academic articles on digitalisation of land administration; the political economy of land reform; COVID-19; openness and transparency in COVID-19 financing; corruption and identity politics. He is a member of the South African Association of Public Administration and Management and the Ethiopian Economic Association.

Dr Cecilia Ojemaye (Nigeria)

Dr Ojemaye’s research focuses on the monitoring, identification and quantification of contaminants of emerging concerns in different environmental matrices. Her research focuses on different sites along South African’s Indian Ocean coast by investigating the complex environmental challenges facing small-scale farmers, all of whom live and work in watersheds that reach the Indian Ocean and whose food production has been compromised by the particular characteristics of Indian Ocean warming. She is based at Environmental Humanities South at UCT. Professor Lesley Green is her host.

“This has led to greater use of a new range of agricultural products, whether pesticides or fertilisers (many of which contain heavy metals) or herbicides recommended by agro-industry,” she said. “The health consequences of these have not been assessed, and we need a baseline study on their presence and consequences in water and soil. The project requires an environmental chemist who can initiate and lead community-based research.”

Her research cuts across many SDGs, such as: goal 3, good health and well-being; goal 6, clean water and sanitation for all; goal 14, life below water; and goal 17, partnerships for goals. These are valuable in shaping regional policies, conservation efforts, and sustainable development plans.

“Identifying and implementing effective solutions is essential for protecting the environment and achieving sustainable development,” she added.

Dr Solomon Uhunamure (Nigeria)

Dr Uhunamure is an environmental scientist with research interests in sustainable and renewable energy, energy economics, climate change impact and adaptation, environmental geography and sustainable development (SDGs Baseline).

He is jointly hosted in the Energy Systems Research Group in the Department of Chemical Engineering and is supervised by Professor Harro Von Blottnitz.

Uhunamure’s research aims to strengthen circular economies at different scales using a panel data approach of circular economy impact on sustainable development and the Africa Agenda 2063. The objective of this study is to meet SDG goal 7, affordable and clean energy; goal 11, sustainable cities and communities; goal 12, responsible consumption and production; and goal 13, climate action.

“The fellowship has offered me the opportunity to collaborate with other colleagues with bright minds and the possibility of us meeting our target,” he said.

“Despite the diversity and backgrounds, the fellowship has provided an excellent opportunity to make new friends, team building, work ethics, humanity, teamwork, and professionalism.”

Dr Azza Ahmed (Sudan)

Dr Ahmed is an anthropologist with research interests in urban anthropology, digital anthropology, medical anthropology, and science technology and society. She is based at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) and her supervisor is Professor Divine Fuh.

Her research project is titled: “No one is safe until everyone is safe: Decolonising science, technology, and innovation of vaccine development in South Africa and Ghana”. It examines the socio-technical problems that vaccine development faces in these countries, as well as initiatives to solve these.

“COVID-19 demonstrated the critical importance of developing and implementing healthcare programmes to improve African countries’ preparation to combat current and future pandemics,” she said.

One strategy is to use science, technology, and innovation (STI), particularly in areas such as drug discovery, vaccine research and development, and biotechnology, she said. However, without infrastructure, long-term finance, crucial skills, and political will, harnessing STI would be hampered in reaching Africa’s SDGs. 

It must be rid of western hegemony.

“The discovery mission is a colonial mission that does not recognise prior knowledge, and the discovery age marked the birth of modern colonialism. Addressing inequities in drug discovery and vaccine development necessitates a thorough examination of how the ideals of integrity and justice must be strengthened in the process.”

Dr Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón (Colombia)

Dr Díaz Pabón’s interdisciplinary interests lie in industrial engineering, and development studies, involving mathematical modelling, statistics, sociology, political economy, conflict studies and development economics. He is based at the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research. His supervisor is Professor Murray Leibbrandt.

Pabón has worked in government, civil society, academia and the private sector in Latin America, the Netherlands, Mozambique and South Africa.

“I work at the intersection between theory and practice, and my research interests are related to politics, conflict, development and economics from a comparative perspective.”

His interest with UCT relates to the realities of South Africa.

“South Africa is arguably ground zero when it comes to the compounded impacts and scars of colonialism and racism leading to inequalities and poverty. Informed by this context and motivated to work for a better and fairer world, I am daily challenged to reflect on and contribute ideas to understand and correct these social injustices. I believe it is in these areas where UCT can offer a way forward for a more engaged form of scholarship.”

His fellowship reflects on how inequalities generate poverty, and the role that inherited wealth plays in explaining the inertia of inequities and absence of social mobility. As such, it is related to the goals of reducing poverty (SDG 1) and inequality (SDG 10).

Dr heeten bhagat (Zimbabwe)

Dr bhagat’s recent work has been in the emerging terrain of pracademics; looking to expand collaborations and design experiments between academia and real-life systems. He is a project manager for the African Centre for Cities and is supervised by Professor Lindsay Gillson, Associate Professor Zarina Patel and Dr Anna Taylor.

His core interest is in problematic and complex systems thinking and his work focuses on the thematic track Transdisciplinarity and Engaged Scholarship, which emerged from the UCT SDG Summit 2021.

“This does not necessarily meet the SDGs as such,” he said. “Rather the thematic track and the research done to date, coupled with the work I have been asked to pursue, aims to put forward a set of propositions that could lean on transdisciplinarity and engaged scholarship towards achieving or attempting to achieve some of the SDG goals and targets.”  

bhagat said he approaches this work as a methodologist, bringing “pragmatic and provocative programming to support decolonial and diversity-expanding processes in overlooked and underserved environments”.

His experience spans the learning spectrum – from rural, community and informal spaces through to established cultural and academic institutions.

“My objective as an arts and culture professional is to investigate and nurture creative potential. Through an initial training in design, I have worked with a diverse spectrum of communities, organisations and students to examine, confront, and reinterpret an ever-changing world. This work has strengthened my capacity to deal with the growing number of eclectic challenges the world is facing.”

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