What you need to know:
Deborah Wendiro wears many hats. She has served as a midwife, a food scientist and has risen through the ranks to become the head of the network of Ugandan Women in Agricultural Research and Development. She is a committee member of Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium. She is mentoring young scientists and spearheading innovations.
Debora Wendiro loves science, especially agro-science and her home in Seeta, Mukono is a showroom of sorts. When we visited her recently, we saw several species of local mushroom in her backyard. She is currently carrying out research to see how she can go big on them.
Wendiro, the chairperson for Network of Ugandan Women in Agricultural Research and Development, is a multi-tasker, whose long journey in science began in the labour ward at Mulago Hospital.
Wendiro was born in 1962 as the sixth of 12 children to Yokasani Bwanga and Magalita Namugaya (both deceased), whose peasant family in Kamuli District depended on small-scale farming, dealing in maize, coffee, beans, sweet potatoes, among others.
She joined Buwanume Primary School aged seven before sitting her Primary Leaving Exams at Kamuli Girls Primary School.
She joined Sacred Heart Girls School in Gulu; Namasagali College, where she finished her Ordinary Level in 1979 and finished her Advanced Level of Education in 1984 at Jinja Secondary School.
Wendiro wanted to pursue a science course at university but missed government sponsorship.
“This is the reason I studied a certificate in midwifery at Mulago,” she says.
She practiced midwifery at Mulago Hospital and trained midwives from 1989 until 1992 when she quit after waiting for a promotion in vain.
She studied Industrial Chemistry and Biology, at Makerere University, a food and nutrition course that would shape her career path for the next decades. She got her first degree in 1996.
Meanwhile, she got married but her bliss was shortlived when her husband died when their first child, a boy, was still an infant. Wendiro would single-handedly groom the boy into a man with Master’s in Mass Communication.
Wendiro briefly returned to Mulago Hospital as a child health development officer but after six months, she quit again.
She says she worked for a Korean multinational, as quality controller in the fish processing industry, but within just a month, her protest against the company’s mistreatment of Ugandan workers cost her the job.
At Makerere University, Michael Amenyi, a Ugandan visiting professor who lectured in Germany and USA, tasked her with a research assignment in wine processing using a microbiology approach.
She had no idea where to start but after reading several voluminous books about the topic, Wendiro used a plastic jerrican to brew her wine using banana and pineapples.
She discovered that one needs an air locker to allow in oxygen to make the microorganisms.
The process also involves application of aerobic fermentation, a metabolic process by which cells compress sugars through fermentation in the presence of oxygen.
Her first innovation would turn into her first self-employment when, in 1997, she started brewing wine, which she branded Wendi’s Tropical Fruit Wine.
But after a year, she abandoned the business and joined the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI) in 1998 as assistant research technician in the Microbiology Department.
At UIRI, Wendiro would become a professor in biological chemistry innovations. She read widely about beer and wine brewing and realised that some herbal plants can be used to extract yeast during the brewing process.
Soon, she was appointed head of microbiology. In 2006, her proposal won her and two others a $5 million grant from the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology under Millennium Science Initiative.
The money helped refurbish the institute with laboratory equipment. Later her department produced another industrial biotechnology for processing industrial bio-degradable enzymes from cassava and sweet potato starch.
This is the lab where Wendiro mentored young scientists until she left last year during the Covid-19 lockdown in a restructuring exercise.
One of her innovations with science rookies was extracting essential oil from aromatic flowers such as lavender to make liquid and solid cosmetic oil. She says, Ms Olive Kigongo, of the National Chamber of Commerce bought the first nine bottles of the oil.
“We did this work with a young scientist called Anthony Lutaya who was very attentive in learning and implementing innovations and together we sensitised over 100 incubatees in cosmetics innovations,” she remembers. But most of participants were women because “I love promoting women.” She is proud to see some of them start cosmetics companies in Kampala and another in Arua.
Wendiro’s second innovation alongside young scientists was processing biodegradable bags from cassava starch and processing lactic acid which can be used by pharmaceutical companies.
They choose which type of lactic acid to process. It can be single-type made using fermentation like the milk lactic acid.
The second type is isolated lactic acid, made using bacteria to form a polymer to process biodegradables to process non-plastic bags.
“I taught the young scientists how to produce enzymes from processing sugar from cassava because importing the enzymes is very expensive,” she says.
Another grant from the International Development Research Centre in 2006 led Wendiro and her team of young scientists to villages in Kabale to collect various species of traditional mushrooms and to Arua to interact with women groups in fermentation of cassava.
The Arua women had a contract to supply cassava flour through World Food Programme (WFP) in Karamoja. She trained three of them in safe processing and storage of cassava. Nowadays, the women supply through WFP.
Meanwhile, research showed that the traditional mushroom can be bred using modern technology in-house, which she does at her home for commercialisation.
She grows varieties such as Sitake aks Letina Edodes, which she says is tasty and with a potential to fetch a reasonable income.
Others are what is commonly known as the big sheath mushroom, (Akasukusuku), said to be medicinal and prevent cancerous tumors among children and adults.
Wendiro admires Dr Joy Constance Kwesiga, the vice chancellor of Kabale University and Miria Matembe, whom she calls very bold women, who have fought for women’s rights and made a positive impact in society. But her top role model is her mother, a primary three dropout, who spoke broken English but was an avid multi-tasker, who did everything for her family’s happiness.
Wendiro has held several positions. After being trained as the fellow in Mombasa with a group of East African agricultural ladies in leadership management, she became head of the Network of Ugandan Women in Agricultural Research and Development.
She is a committee member of Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (UBBC) situated at Uganda National Council for Science and Technology in Ntinda, Kampala.
She has also registered her Institute of Biosciences which is operating in Kamuli with the agenda of training young upcoming scientists.
Wendiro says she is a highly motivated and ambitious researcher who always wants to innovate something and ensure the product is rolled out to the market
“When I see success in an innovative scientific area, I become focused and ensure I pursue it to completion.”
She is one person who does not give up easily. “When I joined university via mature entry, fresh young students used to tease me that ‘this old woman will not pass’ but at the end of the fourth year I emerged the best in engineering mathematics and the young students wondered and praised me,” she recalls.
Advice to women
“People think women are a weak sex, who cannot manage so many tough tasks but that’s not true,” she says as if suggesting herself as a vivid example. “This is because the system does not want clearheaded women. As such for women to be able to compete, they must be confident. They should not think it’s fellow women who can mentor them in order to succeed.” Instead, she is encouraging women to be around men and ensure it is men who can mentor them. She says men are confident and assertive in whatever they do.
“Men can help women avoid emotions, because a fellow woman will instead discourage her colleague from pursuing a certain thing,” she noted.
On how to get more women pursuing sciences and embrace innovations, Wendiro advises teachers and lecturers to listen to the girl-child’s aspirations, before forcing them into pursue other subjects and combinations.
She was a victim of such bias: “In secondary school, I loved science subjects and literature because I loved reading novels. When I joined Advanced level, the teachers forced me to pursue art subjects and I failed in Senior Five. I complained to my mother and she asked the school to allow me to pursue Chemistry, Biology and Physics but I was given Geography as the third subject, which I failed. This is a lesson to all teachers because they assume that girls cannot pass mathematics,” she says.
She says switching roles comes from being ambitious. She is also a very confident woman, who usually has authority over her work and at UIRI most men called her ‘a man’ due to her confidence in whatever she did.
She also traversed the world and her breakthrough was when she applied to World Association of Industrial Research Organisation to present a paper in scientific innovations in traditional plants in Saskatoon City in Canada.
From then, she won a number of scientific grants, including the UN Women, after leading an innovated that made an aflatoxin biosensor.
Her second trip was to Indonesia where she presented a similar paper in a conference. This is because she had made friendships with another professor while in Canada.
Wendiro feels she has not yet reached her climax. She is pushing an agenda of establishing a research and innovation institute in Uganda where she wants to take charge because it is her area of interest.
This, to her, will be the continuity of the industrial biotechnology centre she established at UIRI.
Some of Wendiro’s innovations with science rookies was extracting essential oil from aromatic flowers to make liquid and solid cosmetic oil. Another innovation was processing biodegradable bags from cassava starch and processing lactic acid which can be used by pharmaceutical companies. PHOTOS/MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI