UNZA, cooperating partners launch the ALMA consortium

PS Education pose for a photo with participants

The University of Zambia and its cooperating partners namely the Alga Kahn University, Kenya, Center for Genomic Medicine, the University of Cape, Kamuzu University of Health Science, and the University of Oxford have launched the African Leadership for Measuring Brain Health in Children and Adolescents (ALMA) consortium which will run for three years.

Speaking during the launch the Minister of Education Honourable Douglas Syakalima who was represented by the Permanent Secretary, Technical Services, Mr Joel Kamoko said the launch of such a ground-breaking initiative marks the beginning of a journey that holds immense promise for the future of the children on the African continent.

“As you may be aware, child development is a critical period marked by accelerated physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development. Evidence shows that brain development during this critical period is heavily influenced by geography through a complex interplay of environment and genetics,” he said.

Mr Syakalima said in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to 500 million children under the age of 18, brain development is heavily impacted by poverty-driven factors including communicable and non-communicable diseases.

“Allow me to highlight the three central gaps in knowledge in the African neurosciences: Firstly, we lack an understanding of how African environments and biology interact in the mechanisms underpinning brain growth and development.  Second, we have limited ability to accurately measure variance in brain function and behaviour in our populations and thirdly, we have limited access to neuro-developmental interventions with evidence of effectiveness and scalability in Africa,” he said.

Mr Syakalima said the government was reliably informed that through an inter-disciplinary approach, the launched ALMA consortium seeks to advance scientific knowledge on the complexities of child and adolescent brain development, with a focus on the unique context of Africa. “I have been informed that the consortium specifically aims to unravel the knowledge gaps using the ABCD model that is: Advancing the science of brain health in African children; Building scientific leaders, especially African women; Consolidating African research institutions; and Driving change in the community.

“This will be achieved by analysing African data available through existing studies led by ALMA investigators, supplemented by primary data collected by fellows. Three topics will be explored: 1. Mechanisms of brain development; 2. Measurement of brain function and behaviour; and 3. Interventions to promote child development,” he said.

The Minister acknowledged the partners and collaborators in the network co-led by two new African-run research institutes in Nairobi and Cape Town: the Aga Khan University Institute for Human Development (IHD) and the University Of Cape Town (UCT) Neuroscience Institute. The network leaders are joined by several established partners, the University of Malawi, the University of Zambia, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the University of Oxford, with collaborators in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Ghana. The Minister revealed that the network will build the leadership and scientific skills of 45 African fellows with a 2:1 ratio of women to men through rigorous supervision and mentorship within partner institutions at post-doctoral, doctoral, and master levels.

Mr Syakalima said the government was delighted to learn that the network will systematically promote the participation of women in the fellowships being offered, which also aligns with the government’s priority and the global agenda of increasing participation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

“Ï would also like to acknowledge the funding partners: the Science for Africa Foundation (SFA foundation), and the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for their support to this noble cause,” he said.

The Minister said the government was optimistic about the transformative impact the consortium will have on the lives of children and adolescents in Africa. “As we launch this consortium, let us reaffirm our commitment to advancing the well-being and potential of every young child to a thriving start,” he said.

And speaking at the same function the University of Zambia Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Anne Sikwibele said the focus on measuring brain health in children and adolescents is strategic. Prof Sikwibile said evidence shows that a healthy brain is the foundation of effective leadership, innovation, and sustainable development yet the discourse on brain health, particularly in the African context, remains an underexplored frontier.

“Our continent’s unique challenges and opportunities necessitate a tailored professional leadership in neuroscience that takes into account the rich diversity of our cultures,” she said.

Prof Sikwibele welcomed the launch of the project and revealed that the University of Zambia was going to particularly benefit through fully funded fellowships at post-doctoral level (2), doctoral (3) and masters (4). “Guest of honour, I am proud to mention that this is the first time the School of Education will offer training at the post-doctoral level, a landmark development in the history of the School. Other benefits to UNZA will include infrastructure improvement and equipment purchase,” She said.

She said the project was of paramount importance not only to the ALMA network but also to the University of Zambia and the continent as a whole. Prof Sikwibele said that the University of Zambia has always been at the forefront of pioneering research and transformative education adding that the goals of ALMA Network were in line with the strategic priorities, which include innovation, science and research.

“It is my sincere hope that the network will provide an opportunity for us to extend our long-standing legacy of contributing valuable scientific knowledge that will not only benefit our immediate community but also resonate on a global scale. Leveraging on expertise in the University, particularly from the School of Education and Medicine, I wish to assure the ALMA Consortium that UNZA is strategically positioned to achieve the aspirations of the network successfully,” she said.

Prof Sikwibele thanked the Government of the Republic of Zambia through the Ministry of Education for its continued support. She also extended her gratification to all the cooperating partners and the funders for embarking on a transformative project focusing on brain health.

“As we embark on this journey, let us remind ourselves that, investing in healthy brain development of our young children is an investment in the prosperity and resilience of communities,” she said.