A scientist examines blood samples under a microscope.

To advance development in Uganda, says minister for science, technology and innovation Monica Musenero, science needs to have practical applications to fix context-specific problems.Credit: Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty

Epidemiologist Monica Musenero has been Uganda’s minister for science, technology and innovation since 2021. She first trained as a veterinarian at Makerere University in Kampala. She graduated in 1992 and then pursued a master’s degree in microbiology and immunology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, under the World Bank’s Agricultural Research and Training Project, graduating in 1997. She also earned a master’s in public health from Makerere University in 2002.

During the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in Sierra Leone, she was a member of the World Health Organization’s emergency response team. She was part of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s COVID-19 Task Force, set up to mitigate the spread of the disease. The science ministry was established in 2016, and its mission is to transform Uganda into an industrialized country. Musenero spoke to Nature about research, development and industrialization in Uganda and how her upbringing has influenced her career.

You have advocated an African research agenda. Can you explain what that means?

It is an agenda in which African scientists do research designed and built by Africans for African development. That research leads to products that are relevant to industrialization; publications in top journals, such as Nature; and presentations at scientific conferences.

We need science for development — and this research agenda will help us to harness the resources in Uganda, to create wealth for our people and to develop our country. When you go to the United States, you find US products developed with US science. In Japan it is the same, but in Africa we use products that we haven’t produced.

Research is too detached from our society. Most of Uganda’s science is being done as though the country is developed. That is the kind of work that is presented at conferences — but it can’t solve our society’s problems, because this kind of science is often designed to fix different problems elsewhere. That’s what I want to change.

Africans must stop delegating thinking to others, and start thinking for ourselves. Our context in time and space is unique. We can learn from scientists in other parts of the world, but we cannot simply copy what they are doing. For example, I see us trying to use business-development models such as those designed in California’s Silicon Valley for start-up companies. But, look, we don’t have venture capitalists to finance start-up companies here. So innovators cannot access investments for many years — and often, financing comes too late, when they are too old or have retired.

Uganda’s government launched a campaign in the 1990s, starting with the establishment of science-focused universities, to develop basic-research capacities, and those are now at the take-off stage. The government is now working to set up a research environment to advance all stages of product development. These goals are progressing fairly well. The country has started producing manufactured products, such as the electric buses manufactured by Kiira Motors, based in Kampala. About 30% of the materials for the buses are locally sourced. The buses are designed and built in Uganda by Ugandans.

It has been three years since you became a minister. Which areas are you focusing on, and why?

The ministry is focused on the whole value chain. Uganda will no longer be only a source of raw materials. We are for science that builds the economy. That will help us to solve the current unemployment challenge — overall unemployment was at 12% in 2021, but it was 41% among those aged 18–30.

When I studied in the United States, I saw that the results of research happening there were flowing into industry — the products were going to the market. We need to set up a supportive system for this to happen in Uganda, and we have started. This includes setting up industrial parks, such as Namanve and Mbale, and the awarding of research grants by the president’s office and government agencies, such as the National Agricultural Research Organisation.

We are focusing on the following areas, in which we have advantages over other countries: pathogens; hydroelectric and solar energy; the production of vaccines and drugs; transport, including investment in electric vehicles; infrastructure innovation; and production accelerators, such as irrigation in agriculture.

You are both a scientist and a government official. Tell us more about the real Monica Musenero.

I am a Ugandan scientist, public-health specialist and social worker. I am a wife and mother of three, and I am very passionate about contributing to the socio-economic transformation of Uganda and Africa. Everything I have done has been to better the community. I am a thought leader, courageous and not afraid to explore difficult, uncharted waters. I am independently minded and love to interrogate the status quo.

I come from a typical African village, characterized by poverty and illiteracy. Growing up there shaped who I am. I did not like the hard labour that was required to get anything. Everything, including water, food and firewood, was obtained through a lot of work. Life was so difficult, and I always dreamt of changing that. Looking at how women had to toil, motivated me to study hard in a place where education was not common. My attitude made my family conclude that I would never get married. So, I poured myself into school.

And I have been happily married for close to 25 years now.

What are your greatest challenges in your work?

Through the decades, Uganda has, as a legacy of colonialism, built bits and pieces of a scientific system but it has not comprehensively linked results to socio-economic transformation. The education system has decoupled science from development. Therefore, our professionals are either on the side of science or on that of development, with a chasm in between.

Scientists understand science, but their understanding is unlinked from the economy. Those in planning and development don’t see how to connect the Ugandan science to the technology and development that they see in developed countries. Although there is a lot of talk about science being the engine for our development, what needs to be done is not very clear on either side of the chasm.

Is it going to be difficult to build a bridge across that chasm?

My greatest challenge is to convince everyone — policymakers, scientists, financiers, legislators and those in the private sector — to understand how science builds the economy. I spend most of my time working out how to construct that bridge.

I have a good background in science, but I have had to rapidly build my knowledge in development and politics. My task is usually interpreting and translating our president’s ideas into actions. I must think deeply about everything every single day. These challenges make my work engaging and fulfilling, because, somehow, I am wired for it.