In Kenya, the chemist who wants to give drink to all of Africa

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Kenyan chemist Catherine Ngila.

Some of his comrades still call him Mr. Catherine, “Monsieur Catherine” in Swahili. Thus, Catherine Ngila’s father addressed his daughter, proud of the success of this child raised among 27 brothers and sisters in a rural village in central Kenya. She was the first in the family to enter high school and then university. “It was his way of telling me that he found me important and that he wished me to have the same opportunities as a boy”, recalls with a laugh this 61-year-old woman, who has since become one of the most respected scientists on the African continent.

Presentation of our series Science is changing the lives of African women

Executive Director of the African Academy of Sciences, based in Nairobi, and professor at the University of Johannesburg (South Africa), this chemist has a specialty: water and its pollutants. She has devoted her work to this for three decades, working on the development of detection and filtering processes based in particular on nanotechnologies. Innovations that have earned her the L’Oréal / Unesco prize for women in science in 2021, along with four other laureates from around the world. Five years earlier, she had already been named South Africa’s best female scientist.

“Take care of myself”

A sparkle in her eyes, she grabs a plastic bottle, a notebook and a pen to try to illustrate by mimicking the purification techniques developed with her students at the University of Johannesburg. Despite his efforts, for the uninitiated, the case remains complex. Catherine Ngila’s ultimate goal, on the other hand, is crystal clear: the development of large-scale nanofilters to be able to equip all rural households in Africa with filter cartridges at affordable prices.

If the subject is close to his heart, it is that it has resonated in her since childhood. In his younger years, everyday water was the water that would be drawn from the river. Red, cloudy water, which had to be systematically passed through a square of cloth and mixed with calcium bicarbonate to try to neutralize impurities. “But I couldn’t help but wonder: is that enough to make it truly clean? “, she recalls. Even today, in sub-Saharan Africa, only a quarter of the population has access to a safe source of drinking water.

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Catherine Ngila did not grow up in wealth. Its rise is first and foremost the fruit of patient and pugnacious labor. Born in 1961, shortly before Kenya’s independence, in Kitui County, 130 kilometers east of Nairobi, the little girl divides her daily life between school and domestic chores. The family earns its income from working the land and from its herds of goats and cows. Her father is a tribal chief and her mother, fourth wife, died when she was only 6 years old. A shock as much as a click: “I told myself very early on that I had to study to be able to take care of myself since I will no longer have my mother to watch over me. “ In elementary school, she shines in mathematics to satisfy her teacher who threatens recalcitrant students with corporal punishment. In college, she discovered her true passion, chemistry.

Desires elsewhere

All along, his father encourages his quest for excellence. “He had fought during the Second World War with the English and had served as their interpreter in Kenya. He had seen the world, worked with educated people and wanted success for his children, including his daughters ”, welcomes the scientist.

In 1991, while already teaching at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, she flew to Sydney, Australia, on a scholarship. She came back four years later, crowned with a doctorate. The experience consolidates her curriculum vitae and gives her desires elsewhere. She therefore became a lecturer in Botswana, then in South Africa, in Durban, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Among her peers: white South Africans, Indians… but no black women! What she attributes to a legacy of apartheid does not fail to surprise her, just like her students at the time. “I was so curious that they rushed to my office before my first class”, she recalls.

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In 2011, she reached a new level when she was appointed professor of chemistry at the University of Johannesburg. “From there, I made a lot of progress in my research. I got a lot of grants. I had a great exposure. I had no choice but to deliver results! ” His team is accelerating discoveries on the use of nanofibers, nanoabsorbents and nanocomposite membranes (made from chemical resins and biomass materials) to detect and extract toxic chemicals and traces of metals. A treatment model used in particular to avoid the discharge of effluents from Johannesburg purification plants.

Battle horses

On her appointment, she is again the only black woman at her level. What to forge his determination to become a « role model » for others after her. An ambition which is even one of its driving forces for remaining living, working and teaching in Africa. Young girls on the continent too rarely consider continuing their studies until the doctorate, regrets the professor: “We first expect them to marry and have children. I tell them: do not start a relationship until you have obtained at least a diploma! “

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She hopes to see more women getting into science professions… and more young African researchers having the tools to realize their potential. Because if sub-Saharan Africa does not lack well-made heads, universities, they are often very badly off. With the exception of South Africa, most laboratories in the region are sorely lacking in equipment and funding.

At the African Academy of Sciences, this pan-African institution responsible for promoting scientific research on the continent, it has made it one of its battle horses. “I urge African governments to invest, otherwise Africa will forever remain at the back of the global research pack, she says. If I hadn’t left Kenya, I would never have gotten to where I am. “

This series was produced in partnership with the L’Oréal Foundation.

Summary of our series “Science changes the lives of African women”

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In Kenya, the chemist who wants to give drink to all of Africa