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5 December 2022
Prof from kasi driven to uplift young scientists
There is nothing ordinary about Prof Fanelwa Ajayi. Not only is this University of the Western Cape (UWC) Associate Professor of Physical Chemistry an award-winning researcher, she is also a social entrepreneur and budding author who dreams of putting maths and science wings on marginalised learners and teaching them how to fly.

Ajayi holds a PhD in Physical and Electro-analytical Chemistry from UWC. Her research also focuses on Materials Science, Electro-polymerisation Synthesis and drug metabolism sensors. She specialises in research on the development of drug metabolism nano biosensors for HIV and TB drug treatment using a platform developed by utilising green method nanoparticles.  Her TB drug metabolism research has been ground-breaking and award-winning, but is not at the commercialised stage yet. 

She is one of the lead researchers at the SensorLab laboratories based at UWC, where she leads a team of young scientists and continues to enhance her research to serve the health needs of South Africans. Her research findings have been published across 39 research articles and seven book chapters, making her a sought-after international panellist. 

Among her many accolades, Ajayi holds fellowships with the AIMS Next Einstein Forum, and was named “1 of 20 Next Einsteins” for 2019-2021. She was also recognised in the African Science Leadership Programme and the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) Future Professors Programme. 

Ajayi’s education advocacy work can be seen through her non-profit organisations AmaQawe ngeMfundo, Chemistry Education South Africa, KasiMaths (a budget-friendly programme targeting improvement in maths among townships across the country) and the Akeelah Foundation. 

Some of her many other awards include the 2018 South Africa’s Inspiring Fifty Women in STEM award, the 2019 UWC DVC Community Engagement Award, and the 2019 prestigious NRF Excellence Emerging Leader/Early Career Researcher Award. Ajayi co-founded KasiMaths in 2018 with funds she won in the TechWomen Program in Silicon Valley in 2017.

AmaQawe ngeMfundo is a “make-shift mobile lab” she founded in Khayelitsha in 2017, that makes Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fun and interactive through workshops and seminars. She hopes this will inspire learners to pursue careers in STEM. 

She is also fundraising to expand the work of AmaQawe ngeMfundo. Ajayi hopes to create a fully equipped, central science hub in Khayelitsha to unite marginalised schools across Cape Town in STEM projects. This project will be funded in part through a children’s book on practical science learning she’s currently completing for publishing.

“The proceeds of the book will be pushed into making the centre sustainable. But it’s a drop in the ocean. We have this crisis in SA of low uptake in maths and science. We really need funding, even if only for a container, or a donated structure, and tables, desks, chemicals and other necessities of a lab.

“The NRF usually avails funds for graduate internships at certain facilities, and this could be a place to absorb some of those graduates and unemployed youth. It would have a large chemistry lab for about 100 people, and a seminar room so we can interact with the kids. This would allow any learner from any school to visit the facility, do some experiments, see things, attend a workshop by an expert and even interact with international visitors.”

Prof Ajayi has always loved chemistry and explaining things. “I knew I wanted to end up in the education sector. Chemistry is a subject I find interesting and easy, apart from maths and physics. I wanted to merge what I liked, with teaching. I come from an environment of poverty, crime, alcoholism, and abuse – these are real things. I knew I wanted to be educated and had the support of my mom. So, I just worked hard and remained curious.

“I knew from the onset that only through school would I alleviate poverty. So, on weekends I had a mini salon at home doing braids.” 

In her third year, she got an NRF scholarship and completed her studies. 

She says her desire to impact others has never ceased. 

“At times, the challenge with being educated is: people sometimes move out of their hometowns in the pursuit of a better life and some never return. If we all leave, how would the community see examples or role models?” 

As such, she urges those who can, to contribute through outreach activities in their hometowns.

“I had this longing inside. What now? What else can I do? So now it’s about building the next level of scientists all over Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain and Bonteheuwel, and across South Africa.”
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