Monday, August 17, 2015

Of Beauty Queens and Biotech

Beauty contests are popular whether in the big cities or villages. Beautiful, intelligent, and talented ladies vie for the different awards at stake, while audiences get an experience of second guessing the choices of judges. While winning local pageants is already an achievement, those who qualify to represent their respective countries in international events get the limelight and a head-start in careers often related to entertainment and media. Such is the case of women who represent their countries in international contests such as Ms. Universe which began in 1952. The logo of Ms. Universe or “the woman with stars” represents beauty and responsibility, hence, a shift from being merely a pretty face to a woman with the potential to influence and spread messages to the global community.

Since the ladies all look pretty and model their costumes and gowns with similar flair, the question and answer portion often becomes the make or break moment. Finalists, often the remaining five contestants, are asked a final question before one is chosen to go overseas to spread messages that span world peace, education, health, and public awareness of current issues and concerns. Just being a representative of women in a global context enables powerful statements to be voiced out and listened to by a captive audience.

Miss Uganda 2015/2016
Zahara Muhammed Nakigaya
The question “What are GMOs (genetically modified organisms)?” would not be a typical question, but wait, it was exactly the one asked of the finalists for the Ms. Universe representative of Uganda. With ease and confidence, 23-year old Zahara Muhammed Nakiyaga of Kampala said, “GMOs are genetically modified organisms made from joining tissue and DNAs of plants to produce more resistant and long lasting crops.” This, she explained after noting that she would use social media positively to sensitize the youth and the public at large about the different projects I want to do to promote rural development.”

The confidence to answer the biotech question was a result of participation of the pageant finalists, in an agriculture-focused bootcamp, supported by among others, the Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC) and the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Kampala. The lady candidates spent a three-week activity-filled event on “Promoting agricultural entrepreneurship among the youth” which was the pageant’s theme. They engaged in sessions with scientists, visited laboratories and field trials and demonstrations, and were exposed to evidence-based research in agriculture. In an interview with Uganda’s newspaper, Daily Monitor, Zahara said, “I learnt so many things, including the benefits of modern agriculture, which I want to pass on to other youth during my reign.”

Lady candidates learn about agricultural machineries at the bootcamp.

The innovative approach to making biotech more mainstream in public narratives was the brainchild of the UBIC team led by Dr. Barbara Mugwanya Zawedde. UBIC, a member of ISAAA's information network, is committed to fostering greater awareness and understanding of biosciences in a country that is open to modern agricultural technologies to address productivity and population issues. Dr. Zawedde, however, notes that the “openness of the pageant organizers to have their candidates attend the bootcamp and to include a question for the candidates on biotech, opened up the opportunity to get the public interested in a topic often marginalized from daily conversations.” But more importantly, the pageant candidates found the experience very useful and an eye opener.

The contestants at the NaCRRI laboratory.

Indeed the challenge for biotech communicators is how to encourage public engagement, but not on a playing field that is unfamiliar with the latter. Science and its applications do not have to be robustly tested within the confines of the laboratory or field alone. Rather, efforts must be made to engage the public in new conversations that allow them to view science and technology as integral part of their daily life and incorporate public values into decision-making. UBIC can also be commended for popularizing biotech among the youth in Uganda, through essay contests, internships, and science fairs.

Meanwhile, this event is a unique strategy, one of many other possibilities to jumpstart public engagement that can hopefully make a positive difference. 

For more information about agricultural biotechnology in Uganda, send an email to: