Science journalism was never an area of much interest for many newsrooms in Kenya when I began news writing about a decade ago. Scarcely any attention was given to the practice then, in contrast to other forms of journalism such as business or sports, for example, which had dedicated desks.
A science story would be treated with such casual attention to detail that it received only token coverage, warranting but a few inches in the paper no matter the enormity of the subject at hand.
And, on the off chance that a science story did receive considerable space, it almost certainly involved a report about a disease outbreak somewhere. Stories about a research institution or health facility embroiled in a financial scandal of some sort also drew attention.
But sustained and critical reporting on science was largely non-existent. There was simply little appetite for this type of journalism at the time. As a matter of fact, I used to report on almost every subject under the sun (except sports), before finding my way into science writing with the help of a few supportive editors and scientists willing to take the time to encourage my interest.
The subject always had fascinated me. Science, after all, seeks to explain things, to unearth truths and help find solutions to everyday problems that humans face. And since biology, chemistry and physics interested me greatly at school, I naturally gravitated towards this type of journalism.
One of the most enduring influences in my early science journalism career came in the shape of a pull-out section known as Horizon, published weekly by the Daily Nation – Kenya’s leading daily newspaper in terms of circulation.
The editor then had so much faith in freelancers that he almost exclusively relied on them to provide science content that sustained the pull-out. I was one such freelance journalist. This was greatly encouraging and uplifting in my budding science journalism career.
However, the pull-out folded because it attracted little revenue and readership. Apparently, commercial interests trumped every other consideration, and that led to the demise of Horizon. Similar issues led to the demise of science sections in papers elsewhere, including the United States.
My unwitting transition into full time freelance writing came when the Daily Metro, a second outlet I was writing for at the time, was also shuttered. So, I turned to publications online that were interested in science content that emanated from my part of the world, including Science Africa, which published my 2020 AAAS Kavli award-winning story on growing threats to Kenya’s Tana River Basin ecosystem.
Some of the scientific conferences and workshops that I have attended opened my eyes and enhanced my interest in science. At one such workshop, Onesmo Ole Moiyoi, a scientist at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, described a certain tropical grass species known as Brachiaria. Until then, I had never heard about this species, which apparently was revolutionizing the beef industry in Australia and Brazil. I gathered that researchers in Montpelier, France had conducted studies on the species during the colonial times before it made its way to these other parts of the world.
While this information was good to know, it was really fascinating to discover that the grass species actually had originated in Kenya and the East African region. It went by various names such as the Mombasa and Tanzania grass.
Such interactions made me appreciate the genetic wealth and resources that Kenya possessed. Perhaps even more important was making such stories widely known to our readers, some of whom also happened to occupy important policy-making positions in government. And in so doing therefore, I may have played a small part in helping effect change that can have a tangible, positive and lasting impact on society.
I remember, too, attending a lecture in Nairobi by the late Calestous Juma, a Kenyan who was on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School. He was a champion of using innovation and technology to transform African countries and as critical tools for global “science diplomacy.” Juma spoke of an initiative he was involved in that was inspired by interesting observations made by medical doctors at Harvard Medical School regarding use of low-cost, off-patent drugs to treat some cancers affecting patients with diabetes.
The early results prompted drug manufacturers to consider further research into repurposing the drugs. Juma was looking at ways in which researchers would work with Kenyan research institutions to test and manufacture the drugs locally.
So, whether writing about the Brachiaria grass species, or the genetic sequencing of the Red Maasai sheep (which are resistant to intestinal worm infections), or possible Kenyan collaboration on international medical research, such topics remain close to my heart, given their strong connection to East Africa.
The region has so much to offer the world in terms of science. And bringing such research and its potential impact on everyday people’s lives to the fore makes reporting science stories a worthwhile course to undertake.
One of the key lessons I have learned over the years is to keep learning. Journalism is dynamic. It is changing all the time. So, to remain relevant, I have no option but to change with the times by picking up new skills and adopting new journalism tools. Tapping into the vast knowledge of experienced practitioners has helped me a great deal, and this is where online journalism courses come in handy. One of the best is the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) organized by the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin. I have attended a few of these courses, which have been invaluable in my career. And the best part is that these courses usually cost nothing or have only a nominal fee.
Whatever tools you use, compelling journalism requires patience and dedication to detail. For your readers to appreciate the significance of the issues you are covering, you need to transport them – making sure they see what you saw, hear what you heard and feel what you felt.
This lesson applies to all kinds of journalism. And always talk to the people in affected communities. That is where the real story is. Not in conference rooms and lecture halls.
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Geoffrey Kamadi is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. His stories have been published in both local and international publications including Mongabay.org, Thomson Reuters Foundation and The Guardian. He won a 2020 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award in the Science Reporting – Small Outlet category for a Science Africa story on growing threats to the Tana River Basin ecosystem