South Africa researchers win several Newton Fund prizes in global science competition

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Boosting productivity and employment in informal settlements with off-grid, safe and stable renewable energy proved a winning concept for Dr Jiska de Groot of the University of Cape Town, who scooped the prestigious 2020 Newton Fund Chair's Prize, valued at £500 000.

The £1 million Newton Fund celebrates the best partnerships between the United Kingdom and Newton Fund countries, while encouraging new international collaborations to address some of the world's most pressing challenges. The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), through its entity the National Research Foundation, is the main contributing partner for the Newton Fund project in South Africa.

De Groot developed the winning project together with Dr Federico Caprotti of the University of Exeter in the UK. The project sought to develop bespoke energy solutions based on the specific needs of people living in informal settlements.

De Groot, who is a Senior Fellow at the African Climate and Development Initiative, said the project targeted lack of access to affordable and clean energy as this was one of the major obstacles to socio-economic development worldwide.

De Groot and Caprotti held numerous discussions with stakeholders in Johannesburg, Polokwane and the UK, meeting with non-governmental organisations, community representatives and UK energy organisations to come up with solutions based on local needs.

This led to the of testing solar mini-grids in Philippi, an informal settlement in Cape Town, where the mini-grids were found to produce energy up to 40% cheaper than current energy sources. By pairing the mini-grids with an app-based, pay-as-you-go model, the team aim to scale and replicate solar innovations to plug the energy gap across South Africa.

The project has yielded further funding to install mini-grids in the Philippi area, and has also been pivotal in connecting innovative local businesses to government funding opportunities.

For the next phase of the project, the team want to implement a solar refrigeration capacity, and through this to provide women in informal settlements with a source of income based on sustainable refrigeration businesses.

"Energy is an enabler of development," said De Groot, whose vision is a world in which everyone has access to appropriate energy for their needs. "Lack of energy does not just create a health impact, but also huge inequalities for people to develop."

Another feather in the cap of South African research was an innovation developed by Prof. Michael Roberts of Nelson Mandela University that scooped one of five Newton Fund country prizes, each worth £200 000.

Roberts partnered with research fellows at the University of Southampton for his project, which tackled food insecurity in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO). With over 60 million people dependent on the WIO, a humanitarian crisis is looming, as the ocean is warming faster than any other and coastal and marine ecosystems are rapidly declining in the region. If the current trend persists, these ecosystems are likely to collapse within the next 15 years.

Roberts' project has established an Innovation Bridge and Regional Hub Network to provide eight developing WIO countries with immediate access to skills and infrastructure needed to tackle this challenge. The network applies satellites, ocean models, marine robotics and other of state-of-the-art technologies to study these complex and remote ecosystems.

Roberts said the biggest impact of the project had been making countries aware of the situation. "By providing governments with information, we are hoping for a seamless movement of people away from dependence on the ocean to trying to diversity their food security systems and livelihoods," he said.

The DSI's Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation and Resources, Mr Daan du Toit, hailed the collaborative project as an example of what the world urgently needed.

"From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been evident that collective efforts are increasingly needed to sustain global economic recovery and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals," Du Toit said.

In South Africa, the Newton Fund aims to foster world-class collaborations between academics and innovators from the UK and South Africa to address critical development challenges.

UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway said international collaboration improved the quality of research. "The projects shortlisted and celebrated through the Newton Fund prizes are testament to this ambition. They show what can be achieved when collaboration is supported – as well as the real-world impacts that partnered research delivers across a wide spectrum of challenges."

This article was first published by South African Department of Science & Innovation.

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