Building relationships to change the world

Five smartly dressed gentlemen: four from Africa with Professor Kirk Semple shaking hands in the centre

A Lancaster University professor, who has spent 15 years developing the University’s relationships in Africa, has won a staff award for the international impact of his work.

‘Few people have made a bigger impact on international activities for the University than Kirk Semple,’ says Professor Phil Barker, Director of the Lancaster Environment Centre, who nominated Kirk for the award, which recognise Lancaster University staff who are ‘at the top of their game.’

Kirk, a Professor of Environmental Microbiology, says that his interest in Africa was inspired by the PhD students he supervised.

‘One of my areas of research is in pollution and contaminated land, and I have historically attracted a lot of postgraduate applications from West Africa, particularly Nigeria, because of some of really the challenging problems they have with pollution from the oil industry.’

When the Lancaster Environment Centre was formed in 2008, Kirk became the Associate Director for Postgraduate Studies and was tasked with increasing the department’s international recruitment of masters and PhD students.

‘While we were receiving a huge number of applications from West Africa, conversion was very poor and very few were ending up at Lancaster. We may be a top ten university but few people in Africa knew anything about us: one of our problems is that we don’t have a premier league football team and Africans are football mad!’

Soon after, Dr Akanimo (Akan) Odon, Kirk’s first African PhD student, came back to live in Lancaster.

‘We started to talk about what we could do together in West Africa and how we could enhance Lancaster’s reputation there. We managed to convince the then head of department to send us off to Nigeria and Ghana, to visit universities and explore possibilities, both for funding students and for research collaborations.’

‘We didn’t want to go in there with a post-colonial mentality, saying you should listen to us. We wanted to find out what their challenges were and how we could work together to find solutions.’

This approach of ‘co-creation, co-development and co-delivery’ became central to the way Kirk, and other colleagues in the university, work internationally.

Over the next few years Kirk and Akan developed a series of partnerships with West African universities: the ambition was for African postgraduate students to come to Lancaster and be co-supervised by academics in both institutions. The hope was that this would encourage links and research projects between academics themselves. Kirk then became involved in the Lancaster University campus in Ghana, which opened in 2013, with the aim of offering a hub for West African research partnerships.

‘One thing I have realised is the importance of personal relationships, that being willing to go to visit is a very important statement of intent, rather than doing it by email or waiting for people from Africa to come to you. You learn so much going to these countries: meeting people, understanding in open and honest ways the challenges they face, not just in terms of research challenges but challenges of academic and everyday life.’

One particularly strong relationship was developed with Professor Lawrence Ezymonye, from Nigeria’s University of Benin, who became interested in Lancaster’s novel approach to eco-innovation, which bring academics and business together to drive the development of low carbon products and services. It led to the creation of a Nigerian Centre for Global Eco Innovation. In 2017 this, and other partnerships, proved crucial in winning £7 M from Global Challenges Research Fund for the RECIRCULATE project, which supports African businesses and researchers to develop and deliver safe and sustainable water use.

‘It showed we were serious about working with people in Africa, that we had real relationships, alongside making significant investment in the campus in Ghana.

‘Compared to European countries, Sub Saharan Africa is contributing very little to climate change, but is being dramatically impacted by floods, droughts, soil degradation and pollution. In the UK the answer may be moving away from a hydro-carbon based economy but in Africa it might be a move to a more sustainable approach to agriculture, issues around plastic pollution, waste and the contaminated water supply. It’s only when you go to these countries and gain understanding of what it is like on the ground that you can work together to come up with solutions that are fit for purpose.’

Kirk is using his expertise in anaerobic digestion in a follow up project, ACTUATE, which is developing two community-based bio-energy systems in Ghana and Nigeria to pilot how waste can be used to produce both energy and natural fertilisers for use in agriculture.

Kirk has extended his international focus beyond Africa. In 2015 he became Associate Director of International Engagement in the Lancaster Environment Centre and then Assistant Dean for International in the Faculty of Science and Technology. He also shared his expertise in gaining funding for international projects with the wider university. The co-supervision of PhD model which he had pioneered in Africa, has been adopted elsewhere. He started getting involved in developing new partnerships and strengthening existing ones, not just in Africa but in Germany, Malaysia and China as well.

‘There is no plug and play model, they all have different environments, funding systems, staff, rules and opportunities; it is exciting having to think outside the box.’

‘The challenges we face as a global society are the same whether you are in UK, Nigeria, Australia or China: climate change, economic development, water security, food security, population expanding exponentially, as a global society we have to be able to look after each other as much as we possibly can, we have to feed everybody, provide fresh water for everybody, a decent standard of living for everybody.’

Nominating Kirk for the award, Phil Barker praised Kirk’s ‘sustained and innovative leadership of international activities’ and his willingness to spend time away from family and friends to build ‘the personal relationships needed to broker collaborative agreements. His work in West Africa has been delivered with real respect, collegiality and commitment to local people and institutions.’

Kirk is touched and honoured to have been selected for the International Impact staff award, and the recognition is shows from his peers, particularly when there is ‘so much good international work going on in the University.’

‘When I started my career, I never envisaged I would be where I am now. I would have described myself as the typical academic who hides below the parapet, avoiding as much administration as possible because I’d much rather get on with my research. I’ve realised that if I want to make a significant contribution, I have to overcome my lack of confidence and reluctance and get involved in leadership.

‘I’m lucky, for a lot of my academic career, I have been able to plough my own furrow. That’s one of the great things about Lancaster and the department, if you have a good idea, you can be given the space to explore those ideas and opportunities.’

Back to News