Global Faculty Fellow builds toward partnerships, impact in Africa

June 03, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Esther Obonyo, associate professor of engineering design and architectural engineering at Penn State, was named the first-ever Global Faculty Fellow in Global Programs, she wasn’t sure what to expect.

“When I first spoke to Dr. Michael Adewumi [former Vice Provost for Global Programs], he told me that I was the inaugural one [Global Faculty Fellow],” she said. “It was a little scary, but also exciting, to be part of a brand-new program.”

The Global Faculty Fellowship program’s mission is to provide fellows with a greater understanding of the University’s strategic goals for internationalization and the role the office of Global Programs plays as the coordinating unit for implementation. In turn, the fellows provide Global Programs with faculty and academic unit perspective on internationalization initiatives.

For Obonyo, it soon became apparent that she was chosen for a specific reason: her focus on using scientific diplomacy to create partnerships, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa. Obonyo, originally from Kenya, immediately saw the potential of working with African partners on impactful scientific issues. This predated the creation of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus but focused mostly on areas under that umbrella.

“I worked closely with [Associate Vice Provost for Global Programs] Rob Crane and Michael Adewumi to formulate a partnership strategy for East Africa,” Obonyo said.

This strategy was focused around science diplomacy — the idea that, through the sharing of and collaboration on scientific research, Penn State could create strong partnerships in Africa.

The partnership discussions began at the national level. In early 2017, Obonyo and Adewumi traveled to Kenya for a “convening” — a vision and agenda-setting meeting with high-ranking officials from African governments and institutions. The convening was held at the University of Nairobi and featured then-Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Professor Juddi Wakhungu, as the keynote speaker.

Soon after this meeting, an inter-ministerial forum was held, focused on identifying a possible pipeline of projects that Penn State and African institutions and governments could collaborate on.

“Those were very productive conversations,” said Obonyo. “And it was around that time that we figured out that we needed to begin to work not only on the national level, but also on the sub-national level, with the counties.”

One such example of this sub-national collaboration centers around coconuts. Penn State is working with Kenya’s Kilifi County to unlock the economic and agricultural potential of coconuts, an abundant yet underutilized resource in the county. More collaborations focused on bringing solar electricity are on the horizon.

“Science diplomacy is working to build relationships and trust, leading to strategic partnerships,” Obonyo said. “We want these partnerships to have impact and we are seeing that happen.”

Additionally, Wajir County has called on Penn State to collaborate on issues of Water-Energy-Food and is involving the University as a deliberating partner in the earliest agenda-setting meetings of the process. There are several joint proposals, including some with technocrats working within the United Nations system.

“Working with these institutions in Africa is directly in line with the University’s overall strategy of impact and strategic partnership,” Rob Crane, now the interim vice provost for Global Programs, said. “We consider the work that Esther has done and continues to do even after her stint as Global Faculty Fellow to be a success story of the program.”

“I am excited about Penn State’s future in Africa,” Obonyo said. “I think there is great potential for further strategic partnership and impact.”

For more information on the activities described in this article, contact Obonyo at

Global Programs has since appointed two new Global Faculty Fellows — Tiffany MacQuarrie and Tanya Furman. You can read more about their appointment in this Penn State News article.

  • Prof. Madara Ogot giving remarks at the Convening

    Prof. Madara Ogot giving remarks at the Convening in Kenya

    IMAGE: Provided
  • Four people meeting around a table

      From left to right: Dr. Michael Adewumi, Prof. Juddi Wakhungu, Prof. Madara Ogot, and Dr. Esther Obonyo.

    IMAGE: Provided
  • A picture of four people in front of the Kenya Water Institute

    From Left to Right: Jere Selim, Dr. Leunita A. Sumba (Director of Kenya Water Institute), Dr. Michael Adewumi, Dr. Esther Obonyo.

    IMAGE: Provided
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Last Updated June 03, 2019