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Nelson Torto: Up for a challenge

Linda Nordling speaks to the African Academy of Sciences’ new executive director about funding, African agenda-setting and the power of networks.

A mere two weeks into his job as executive director of the Nairobi-based African Academy of Sciences, Nelson Torto has already identified the biggest challenge ahead of him: sustainability—and not the sort that relies on foreign money.

“We have a lot of money coming from outside, good funding for various programmes,” said Torto, who took up the post on 14 August. “But one would want to see a situation where we also have money from within. Without your own money you can’t have your own agenda.”

At least there is momentum. Under Berhanu Abegaz, Torto’s predecessor,  the AAS transformed from a sleepy academic network into a partner for international funders looking to migrate some of their grantmaking to the continent. Today, the academy’s Nairobi headquarters are the physical home of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, a funding platform backed by the UK-based Wellcome Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the US National Institutes of Health.

But the academy and AESA have yet to secure significant investments from within the continent. Torto’s experience in this area could help him secure the financial position. Before joining AAS the analytical chemist was the founding chief executive of the Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation, a parastatal created in 2012 under Botswana’s science ministry.

“The government was the major shareholder in BITRI. Now I’m in a space where I have to engage government. I hope to take from my experience being senior advisor of the minister and get governments on board,” he said.

Torto is already talking to African governments to garner support, initially focusing on southern countries where he has traction. “I want to take advantage of my passport and engage Botswana and Zambia. I’ve been talking to South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland.” Discussions centre around the importance of pooling resources with neighbouring countries to achieve their research ambitions.

No country in Africa, not even South Africa, is able to source all the funding and experts it needs, Torto said. So the AAS has an important role to play, especially for the smaller countries. “It could be better for the smaller governments to contribute to the academy’s endowment rather than struggle on their own.”

Africa’s problem isn’t really that it has no money to do science. Every government has got money, he pointed out. But for science and technology to get a slice, it needs to stop being “invisible to poor people”. For the AAS, this requires a stepping-up of communication, showcasing not only how its own work benefits Africa’s development, but also that of its 300-plus fellows. This will be one of Torto’s priorities going forward.

“I want to see a much more intense engagement with the fellows and their visibility,” he says. The academy should be the go-to partner for anyone wanting to do science and technology projects in Africa. He also wants the AAS secretariat to work more seamlessly with the AAS’ governing board and its fellows, who in his view currently inhabit different ‘spheres’.

“You want to see those three spheres merging into one. Then we can harness the power of the network. It’s a very powerful network of people not just in Africa but across the whole world,” he said.

Torto has used his first two weeks in office to get to know the organisation and discuss its needs with Abegaz. “I’ve been interacting with staff, trying to understand what is going on in terms of their roles, trying to understand where they see us currently and where they think we should be going.”

Next up, he needs to draw up a new strategic plan to replace the current one that runs out in 2018. There are many challenges ahead, he admits, but that is why he took the job: “I would not come to a job that wouldn’t offer me any challenges at all.”