Debora Wendiro loves science, especially agroscience and her home in Seeta, Mukono is a kind of showroom. When we visited him recently, we saw several species of local mushrooms in his garden. She is currently conducting research to see how big she can go with them.
Wendiro, president of the Ugandan Women’s Network in Agricultural Research and Development, is a versatile person whose long scientific journey began in the labor room of Mulago Hospital.
Wendiro was born in 1962 as the sixth of 12 children of Yokasani Bwanga and Magalita Namugaya (both deceased), whose peasant family in Kamuli district depended on small-scale agriculture, selling corn, coffee, beans. , sweet potatoes, among others.
She joined Buwanume Primary School at the age of seven before taking her primary school leaving exams at Kamuli Girls Primary School.
She joined the Sacred Heart Girls School in Gulu; Namasagali College, where she completed her ordinary level in 1979 and completed her advanced level of education in 1984 at Jinja Secondary School.
Wendiro wanted to take a science class at university but missed government sponsorship.
“That’s why I studied a midwifery certificate at Mulago,” she says.
She practiced midwifery at Mulago Hospital and trained midwives from 1989 to 1992, when she resigned after waiting for promotion in vain.
She studied industrial chemistry and biology at Makerere University, a food and nutrition course that would shape her career path for decades to come. She obtained her first degree in 1996.
During this time, she got married but her happiness was short-lived when her husband passed away while their first child, a boy, was still an infant. Wendiro alone would prepare the boy to become a man with a master’s degree in mass communication.
Wendiro briefly returned to Mulago Hospital as the Child Health Development Officer, but after six months she again resigned.
She says she worked for a Korean multinational, as a quality controller in the fish processing industry, but in just a month, her protest against the company’s mistreatment of Ugandan workers took its toll. work.
At Makerere University, Michael Amenyi, a Ugandan visiting professor who has taught in Germany and the United States, entrusted him with a research mission on the transformation of wine using a microbiological approach.
She didn’t know where to start, but after reading several voluminous books on the subject, Wendiro used a plastic jerry can to brew his wine with bananas and pineapples.
She discovered that it takes an air lock to allow oxygen to make microorganisms.
The process also involves the application of aerobic fermentation, a metabolic process by which cells compress sugars by fermentation in the presence of oxygen.
Her first innovation would turn into her first freelance job when, in 1997, she started brewing wine, which she named Wendi’s Tropical Fruit Wine.
But after a year, she abandoned the company and joined the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI) in 1998 as an Assistant Research Technician in the Department of Microbiology.
At UIRI, Wendiro will become professor of innovations in biological chemistry. She read a lot about brewing beer and wine and found that certain herbal plants can be used to extract yeast during the brewing process.
Soon she was appointed head of microbiology. In 2006, his proposal won him and two others a $ 5 million grant from the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology under the Millennium Science Initiative.
The money helped renovate the institute with laboratory equipment. Later, his department produced another industrial biotechnology for processing industrial biodegradable enzymes from cassava and sweet potato starch.
This is the lab where Wendiro mentored young scientists until his departure last year during the Covid-19 lockdown as part of a restructuring exercise.
One of his innovations with rookie scientists was to extract essential oil from aromatic flowers such as lavender to make liquid and solid cosmetic oil. She says Ms. Olive Kigongo of the National Chamber of Commerce bought the first nine bottles of oil.
“We did this work with a young scientist named Anthony Lutaya who was very attentive to learning and implementing innovations and together we made more than 100 incubates aware of cosmetic innovations,” she recalls. . But most of the participants were women because “I like to promote women”. She is proud to see some of them starting cosmetics businesses in Kampala and another in Arua.
Wendiro’s second innovation alongside young scientists was processing biodegradable bags from cassava starch and processing lactic acid that can be used by pharmaceutical companies.
They choose the type of lactic acid to process. It can be monotype produced by fermentation like lactic acid in milk.
The second type is isolated lactic acid, which is made using bacteria to form a polymer to process biodegradable products to process non-plastic bags.
“I taught young scientists how to make enzymes from processing sugar from cassava, because importing the enzymes is very expensive,” she says.
Another grant from the International Development Research Center in 2006 took Wendiro and his team of young scientists to villages in Kabale to collect various species of traditional mushrooms and to Arua to interact with groups of women in cassava fermentation.
The women of Arua had a contract to supply cassava flour through the World Food Program (WFP) in Karamoja. She trained three of them in the safe processing and storage of cassava. Today, women get their supplies through WFP.
Meanwhile, research has shown that the traditional mushroom can be grown in-house using modern technology, which it does at home for commercialization.
She grows varieties such as Sitake and Letina Edodes, which she says are tasty and have the potential to bring in a reasonable income.
Others are what is commonly known as the large sheath fungus (Akasukusuku), which is known to be medicinal and prevent cancerous tumors in children and adults.
Wendiro admires Dr Joy Constance Kwesiga, Vice-Chancellor of Kabale University and Miria Matembe, whom she calls very daring women, who fought for women’s rights and made a positive impact in society. But her best role model is her mother, a three-grade dropout, who spoke broken English but was passionate about multitasking, who did everything for the happiness of her family.
Wendiro has held several positions. After being trained as a Fellow in Mombasa with a group of East African women farmers in leadership management, she became the leader of the Ugandan Women’s Network in Agricultural Research and Development.
She is a board member of the Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (UBBC) located at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology in Ntinda, Kampala.
She also registered her institute of biosciences which operates in Kamuli with the training program for young scientists in the making.
Wendiro says she is a very driven and ambitious researcher who always wants to innovate something and make sure the product is deployed in the market.
“When I see success in an innovative scientific field, I focus and make sure to pursue it to the end. “
He is a person who does not give up easily. “When I joined college via adult entry, fresh young students teased me that ‘this old woman will not succeed’, but by the end of fourth year I became the best in engineering math. and the young students questioned and congratulated me. She remembers.
Advice to women
“People think women are a weaker sex, who can’t handle so many difficult tasks, but that’s not true,” she says as if she is setting herself up as a vivid example. “It’s because the system doesn’t want lucid women. So, for women to compete, they need to be confident. They shouldn’t think that other women can guide them to be successful. Instead, she encourages women to be around men and makes sure it’s the men who can frame them. She says men are confident and assertive in everything they do.
“Men can help women avoid emotions, because another woman will instead discourage her colleague from pursuing a certain thing,” she noted.
On how to get more women to pursue science and embrace innovations, Wendiro advises teachers and lecturers to listen to girls’ aspirations before forcing them to pursue other subjects and combinations.
She was the victim of such a bias: “In high school, I liked science and literature because I loved reading novels. When I reached the advanced level, the teachers forced me to pursue artistic subjects and I failed in Secondary V. I complained to my mother and she asked the school to allow me to continue studying chemistry, biology and physics, but I was given geography as a third subject, which I failed. It’s a lesson for all teachers because they assume girls can’t do math, ”she said.
She says changing roles comes from ambition. She is also a very confident woman, who generally has authority over her work and at UIRI most men called her “a man” because of her confidence in everything she did.
She has also traveled the world and her breakthrough came when she asked the World Association of Industrial Research Organizations to present an article on scientific innovations in traditional plants in Saskatoon City, Canada.
From that point on, she won a number of scientific grants, including UN Women, after leading an innovation that made an aflatoxin biosensor.
Her second trip was to Indonesia where she presented a similar article at a conference. It was because she had befriended another teacher while in Canada.
Wendiro feels that she has not yet reached her climax. She is pushing forward a program to establish a research and innovation institute in Uganda which she wants to take charge of as that is her area of interest.
For her, this will be the continuity of the industrial biotechnology center that she created at the UIRI.
Some of Wendiro’s innovations with the Rookies involved extracting essential oil from aromatic flowers to make liquid and solid cosmetic oil. Another innovation has been the processing of biodegradable bags from cassava starch and the processing of lactic acid which can be used by pharmaceutical companies. PHOTOS / MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI