On the outskirts of the Kalahari Desert, the Okavango Research Institute (ORI) in Botswana is taking advantage of expertise from across Africa to solve national science problems, according to a feature in the TWAS Newsletter.
The institute is part of the University of Botswana. The single building in the town of Maun is surrounded by a few outlying structures for staff, visitors and graduate students — the first group of whom arrived three years ago. However, ORI is also home to a modern geographic information systems laboratory, a herbarium and a refurbished library.
Since its inception, one of ORI's most successful programmes has been BioKavango. The five-year programme combines research with community outreach to tackle challenges relating to fisheries, water, tourism and biodiversity education.
In each of these disciplines, there has been a focus on building knowledge and enabling informed decision-making, to resolve conflicts that have arisen in the past, particularly around tourism.
"One way we hoped to do this was to dispel some misperceptions including the one that fishers were overfishing certain areas," says ORI social scientist Lapo Magole. "We showed this wasn't true; that, in fact, the scale of the fishing industry in the region was simply too small to overfish the stocks," he said.
"The real source of discontent turned out to be that tourists simply did not want to see local people fishing in front of their lodge."
Other tourism-related conflicts the institute has worked to overcome have involved land use. ORI staff have arranged stakeholder meetings to discuss such issues, and are engaged in ongoing studies of tourism to inform policy and decision-making by local officials, tourism operator and government.
The institute is also reaching out to the international community. It has partnerships with several universities in Europe and the United States, and also hosts the Africa Climate Change Network.
One of the institute's persistent challenges has been recruiting enough staff — particularly senior personnel — partly due to the dramatic decline in the value of Botswana's currency over the past decade. There is also a lack of advanced local medical care.
"We can offer an exciting environment for young researchers," ORI's director Susan Ringrose says. "For them, the financial package may not be as important as the challenges posed by the research agenda and the issues they will be able to explore. They are, after all, trying to build a career. For senior faculty with family commitments and retirement on the horizon, the challenge is much greater."
In the meantime ORI is pushing ahead with its own initiatives, including plans to expand and improve its campus and activities, including a European Union-funded program to improve the quality of research proposals, and a Canadian-funded initiative to study and improve public health in the context of development efforts.
ORI's deputy director for research management, Moses Chimbari, is convinced that the institute is making a significant difference in Botswana.
"In southern Africa, people have been afraid of scientists, would never go near them let alone listen to what they had to say. We plan to change that. What I want to do is to be able to go into any bar or sports club or school in Maun and ask someone: 'What does ORI do?', and I want them to be able to tell me. I want them to understand the value of science in their lives."