A new dawn for the Uganda Science Journalists Association (USJA)

Between 2008 and 2013 the Uganda Science Journalists Association (USJA) was growing in strides. Within that six year period it successfully organised an international science journalism conference, bided for the 2011 World Conference of Science Journalists, held annual science journalism fora and even gave awards of excellence to Ugandan science journalists. The following years and months had nothing much to write home about as the association could barely hold any activity to keep members together. But there is a fresh beginning – a new life that should see USJA grow stronger.

USJA’s story is a powerful testimony to the benefits of “twinning,” a programme introduced by the WFSJ in 2006-2007. The concept is straightforward: journalism associations in developing countries are twinned with those in developed countries, to learn from and support each other. USJA was in 2007 twinned with the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW). Since then it has gone through a key rejuvenation.

“USJA had become too weak. Many members had lost their sense of belonging. That is when I started discussions with the ABSW, through its member Joshua Howgego. We came up with an action plana and with the help of an NGO expert we planned the future of the association,” says William Odinga Balikuddembe, former USJA Chairman and now its President and CEO.

At a meeting held on August 5, 2015, with the financial support from the ABSW, and facilitated by Richard Kimbowa (Coordinator of Uganda Coalition for Sustainable Development), USJA members reviewed the status of the association, its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. They setup a task force to review the outcomes of the meeting and gave it one month to report to USJA promoters.

On September 28, 2015, the meeting of USJA promoters appointed William Odinga Balikuddembe as President and CEO, tasking him to build the secretariat, organise elections of a new USJA board and to ensure that the organisation is active.

“The key weakness identified was that we virtually had no secretariat. So with just a voluntary Board, activities became very difficult to sustain. This is an important lesson. The moment is also very special for us because others will be able to learn from us,” says Balikuddembe.

Since that August 5 meeting, USJA has hosted two agricultural biotechnology cafés in partnership with the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (SCIFODE). And on top of that, it was the media partner for the 2nd National Agricultural Biosciences (NABIO 2015) Conference held in November 23-24, 2015 at Makerere University.

“We have registered new members and our membership is now larger than we have ever had. There are several trainings we are pursuing especially for upcountry science journalists in the areas of health and the environment. Trainings in agricultural biosciences reporting should be starting early in 2016. These will take place in partnership with other institutions. We are now definitely in a better position,” Balikuddembe adds.

USJA is also pursuing a new approach that Balikuddembe says will make it have a concrete national identity.

“We are setting up regional units. We have already appointed coordinators for Western and Southern Uganda and we will do the same for the other regions. The idea is to have science journalism routed in upcountry areas – what we do as science journalists should be valuable to the wider Ugandan society, which is mainly rural,” Balikuddembe says.

The USJA has in the past been a successful reference point for young science journalism associations. The new USJA will hopefully be able to share valuable lessons for countries with young science journalism associations or with those that have none at all yet.

Article by Diana BauzaHealth Reporter at The Sunrise