By Assad Mugenyi
Uganda must seriously invest in research and development or it will be left behind in the green energy revolution, Dr Justus Masa, a Kyambogo University don, has said.
We interviewed Masa following his run of speaking engagements at various public forums dedicated to energy solutions in the last quarter of 2022 in Kampala.
The award winning electrochemist was a speaker at the Mineral Wealth Conference (MWC2022) held under the theme, “Positioning Uganda’s Mineral Sector for the Green Energy Revolution” in October and later spoke at the Renewable Energy Conference (REC) organized by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development in November.
He also organized and presented at the symposium tagged, “Innovations for a New Age of the Chemical Industry” held at Kyambogo University also in November.
With mineral occurrences like copper, cobalt, nickel, graphite and rare earth elements like lithium plus the 3Ts (tin, tungsten and tantalum), Uganda is positioning itself to play a significant role in the battery minerals space as the world adopts green energy amidst accelerated climate change.
To optimally benefit from these resources, however, Ugandans need to participate in every stage along the value chain, Dr Masa argues.
“Many have blamed limited funds as the reason why Uganda or Africa in general lag behind in the green energy industry. However, one aspect is always ignored along the pipeline of innovation – where knowledge begins. This missing link is the lack of serious investment in research and development (R&D),” he said.
He added: “Africa is mineral rich yet it has not utilized its resources to produce economic and social goods for the benefit of its people. Educating our citizens adequately to develop local technologies will help translate our God-given resources into products.”
As such, Dr Masa wants to see Uganda emulating countries like Japan, South Korea and Switzerland which are resource poor but wealthy mainly because they have invested in their citizens’ education and provided an environment for innovators to succeed.
Apart from lecturing at Kyambogo University, Masa also teaches at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Germany. Having worked in Germany for the last 14 years in the research and innovation space, he has grown to appreciate the need for locally developed technology.
He believes it is unwise for Uganda to expect to progress and become industrially competitive through technology transfer, which he calls a “tool for under developing some sections of this world.”
Trying to play catch up is another misleading concept, he adds, since technology rapidly becomes more sophisticated and disruptive.
“Technologies multiply and entrench themselves so you cannot wait for them to be transferred to you. No one is going to surrender their intellectual property to you for free if you are their market,” he said.
On the subject of combating climate change – which he called “the biggest challenge that humanity faces today” – Dr Masa whose presentation at the MWC2022 was titled “Opportunities that Uganda and the East African Region can take advantage of in the Green Energy Transition” prefers to highlight the opportunities that have been created by the climate change crisis.
Currently he is representing Kyambogo University on the European Union funded FlowPhotoChem project that brings together 14 other European partners.
The researchers are developing an integrated system of reactors to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide (CO2) into chemicals and fuels, such as ethylene, methanol, ethanol and formic acid, among others. Ethlylene is a high-value chemical with high global demand.
The project also involves a Power-to-X plan where water is split into hydrogen; which hydrogen is later stored and used as portable fuel (hydrogen fuel cells) to power vehicles, ships and the like.
“This is the ultimate technology for eternity since it is 100 per cent green and recyclable,” says Dr Masa.
Comparatively, apart from being finite resources, the lithium-ion batteries come with geopolitical risks akin to the disruption the Russia-Ukraine war has had on global economies, he adds.
In the past, Bayer MaterialScience – a renowned manufacturer of agro chemicals and medicines among others – has purchased a patent related to green energy revolution from Dr Masa.
In 2017, Dr Masa was bestowed the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Fellow Award, an accolade given to the best innovators and scientists in Africa; one of the many awards he has garnered over the years.
He has also served on President Yoweri Museveni’s Presidential Investors Roundtable as the head of the Salt Cluster, technical working group in recognition of his efforts to transform the salt at Lake Katwe into other non-edible products like chlorine.
Together with his Kyambogo University students like Mark Kirumira (with a first class degree in chemical engineering) Masa is carrying out numerous research projects in water splitting to create hydrogen.
Masa describes himself as not only a passionate scientist and academic but also a patriotic Ugandan who is always seeking ways to add value to the country’s resources.
“I am in great support of the minister’s call to grow home technologies,” he said, in relation to Dr. Monica Musenero, the minister of science, technology and innovation’s appeal for a science-led, knowledge based socioeconomic transformation of Uganda at the same MWC22.
“In the past we simply followed recommendations from elsewhere; which we implemented. But now we have to participate in the science; we feel we have enough capital to participate in the science,” Musenero had said.
Highlighting the three levels of science as being, technology importation, technology development and technology transfer, the minister said Uganda would be best served by focusing on the latter two.
“What has been missing is the human element; to help us harness all the resources that we have, including the minerals. But while we want independence, we still need to start somewhere. That is why technology transfer is still important, which will help us as we develop our own technology,” she said.
Policies and bills to support the development of local technology were in the offing, Musenero promised.