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The National University of Lesotho (NUL) will soon have millions of money poured into its research efforts in advanced energy materials through the efforts of Prof Molibeli Taele, one of the Nation’s leading scientists. UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) have awarded a whopping M66, 220,313.39 (£4,027,584.65) research grant to a Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (START) of which NUL is part. 

Actually, NUL is part of the 14 universities involved (4 from UK and 10 from Africa) and it will take quite a chunk in the pie to the tune of a couple of millions of Maloti. Surely, this warrants a big celebration by us all. 

Currently, NUL’s formidable Energy Research team based in the Department of Physics and Electronics is made up of Dr Moeketsi Mpholo (Chairperson), Dr. Zak Thamae (Co-Chair)), Prof Molibeli Taele, Dr Molefe Makhele and Mr Tśita Molapo. A big hand of applause to this great team! 

The GCRF is part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), and it aims at supporting cutting-edge research that addresses challenges faced by developing countries.

STFC is a world-leading science organisation, dedicated to pioneering science and technological research. It is a place where curiosity-driven, blue-skies thinking meets practical, application-led science and engineering. 

START is basically a proposal to utilise techniques that uses precisely controlled electro-magnetic acceleration of charged particles (i.e. Synchrotron Techniques) for Advanced Research and Technology, It seeks to build strong partnerships between world leading scientists in Africa and the UK who specialise in two strands of science; developing and characterising novel energy materials (catalysts and photovoltaics) and structural biology (understanding disease and developing drug targets). Currently, it may also be said to be a partnership of world leading researchers from the UK and Africa – drawn from 4 UK universities (Cardiff, Oxford, Sheffield and Southampton) and 10 African Universities – 7 RSA Universities (Pretoria, Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Wits, UOFS, North West and Limpopo) , then Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Ains Shams (Egypt) and our own NUL (Lesotho).

START envisages a situation where any specific research direction will be dictated by the local environment considerations and through engagement with scientists, energy industry representatives and relevant non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) across Africa. 

The main objectives of START are to:

Create a UK-Africa partnership to develop a programme of world class research based around energy materials (strand 1) and protein structure determination (strand 2), for which leading investigators from across Africa and the UK have been brought together; and
undertake research into emerging and neglected diseases of direct importance to the African continent through an extensive programme of structural biology

This is what Prof Molibeli Taele said:

This grant comes at an opportune time, particularly in view of the many global challenges of the 21st century. These challenges are best summarised in the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). Arguably, three of the most demanding goals are tackling climate change while continuing to expand the availability of energy to all (SDG 7 & 13) and ensuring good health and well-being for all (SDG 3). The value of energy to economic development has been reinforced by the global Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative. Yet inefficient energy production and storage, through burning fossil fuels and using batteries containing heavy metals are major causes of greenhouse effects and pollution.

Healthcare is another major challenge for the developing world, and Africa in particular. Hence a drive to understand and target the threat to human and animal health from emerging and neglected diseases is crucial for this part of the world. In fact the list of challenges is just endless. However, of critical importance is to appreciate that this research grant will go a long way in assisting the participant African countries, and Lesotho in particular, in playing their pledged roles towards tackling climate change alongside the myriad of other challenges as amply articulated under the famous UN 17 SDGs.

Coming back to our own doorsteps and in conclusion:

We view this as a time when NUL is faced with the “Biggest Bang”; since the “Big Bang,” of virtually having no research funding even for the very basic scientific research that has characterised NUL for about a decade now.
NUL got the biggest chunk of the cake compared to all our African partners; and notably our proposal, budget and timelines were approved almost as submitted.

Our main focus will be on strand 1 – developing and characterising next-generation energy materials. However, since a significant number of our colleagues in the Faculty of Science & Technology and Faculty of Health Sciences have expressed interest in strand 2, we are likely to venture into other areas of priority research in the immediate future.

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