Commonwealth Collaborations: Reflections on a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship at Lancaster University with Mary Sibande Kunwanje

Mary Sibande Kinwanje at LEC
Mary Sibande Kinwanje at LEC

Mary Sibande Kumwanje has been the director of research at the University of Livingstonia in Mzuzu, Malawi, since 2019.

She said she was fortunate that her parents wanted her to have an education in a country where it is much more difficult for girls, moving their family to a new district so they could realise this.

She learned from her parents that it was possible to break the cycle of poverty and ill health through education, and following her studies, worked with orphaned children, supporting their learning through to university, with hugely positive outcomes.

She went on to become a project coordinator/research nurse and associate lecturer in the College of Medicine at the University of Malawi, where she was responsible for developing proposals and implementing project and research activities among many other things.

She is currently pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Sanitation - Environmental Sciences at Mzuzu University and said she was very excited to be selected as one of three Commonwealth Fellows hosted by LEC for a six week visit during February and March.

Commonwealth Professional Fellowships are targeted at mid-career professionals from low- and middle-income countries. They spend a period of time at a UK host organisation, working on a targeted programme of professional development and capacity building designed to equip them to become ‘positive change agents’ in their home organisation.

“I was excited that they would consider me,” Mary said.

“My interest is in research for development. I had so many questions, but one key thing was to come here with an objective which I wanted to achieve for myself, my family, my university, and my country. There was a lot of competition to get here. It’s not necessarily just about academia, it’s also about what you’ve done in your own country. It’s ‘who are you in your own countries, and what are the benefits you can bring back from this?’”

Mary said one of the key ideas she will be taking back is how entrepreneurs and academics can work together.

“I’ve learned about resident entrepreneurs, and creating space for them within the university,” she said.

“This is quite unique to LEC. They also participate in the teaching so that the students can learn more and there’s also co-creation, where the businesspeople are inside the university actually developing solutions. I want to try to initiate that co-creation at my university, especially the entrepreneurs in residence. We want to have products that can be turned into businesses which will benefit the community. We want people coming up with research that will benefit the community. Research is great for academic purposes, but what about social responsibility? We want to see benefits.”

As part of the programme, Mary went on field trips to other universities, organisations, and projects across the country.

One of those was Lancaster Co-Housing and Halton Mill, an award-winning eco cohousing community a few miles from Lancaster.

She said: “At Halton Mill we saw residents doing it for themselves and being responsible for their own resources. That was very striking. It provided the space for people to come together, share ideas, and participate. If this was the practice back home, a lot of people’s health would improve.”

She also visited the School of Tropical Medicine and Blackburne House in Liverpool and the School of and Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

In partnership with the Malawi National Commission for Science and Technology, Mary was chosen to participate in the 2020 RECIRCULATE workshop on Knowledge Exchange and Engagement. During this workshop she qualified for the RECIRCULATE Residence Follow-on at Lancaster University.

“My Vice Chancellor came here for the ARIP (African Research Innovation Partnership) workshop earlier this year,” she said.

“There’s now a definite collaboration between the two universities and this is quite an achievement. We’re trying to build on the foundation we’ve already established and there are also more areas that we’re looking at, including a partnership offering a PhD from Lancaster University. I’m going to be exploring partnerships both internationally and locally, and I am definitely going back as a different director of research than I came as. I’ve been affected as an individual. I’m going to be able to add more value at my university and I’m determined to be a change agent by co-creating and co-designing solutions to problems.

“We’ve been shown how to motivate and stimulate people and I will go back with a voice.”

We will be catching up regularly with each of our Commonwealth Professional Fellows over the next 12 months to mentor and encourage their impact journeys.

You can read Commonwealth Professional Fellow r Felly Mugizi Tusiimi’s story HERE.

And Commonwealth Professional Fellow Dr Georfina Erifita’s story is HERE.

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