Serving a “cup of science” in Kenya

How can health professionals and researchers engage the public and get people interested in science?  In Kenya, the Wellcome Trust is supporting an ongoing series of “science cafés,” in which scientists are invited to discuss their work in an informal and relaxed setting, over a cup of coffee, with members of the public and reporters.

When I visited the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust office in Nairobi, during my global health reporting fellowship, I interviewed Juliette Mutheu, who helped to launch Kenya’s science café project.

Juliette explained that science cafés were originally the brain child of a French philosopher, Marc Sautet (his cafés philosophiques brought philosophical debates to a broad public) . They were then popularized by the British science journalist Duncan Dallas and have now taken root worldwide.

Kenya’s first science café, which explored the search for an HIV vaccine, was held in April 2008 at the Java Coffee House in Nairobi (I can vouch for the fact that the coffee house serves an excellent cappuccino).   Other topics since then have included climate change, malaria control, and adult male circumcision as a tool for HIV prevention.

Juliette and her colleague Ruth Wanjala spread the word about the cafés through an e-mail campaign to friends, via Facebook and Twitter feeds, and by posting to an events listing website called Kenya Buzz.  The cafés have garnered terrific local press attention, which in turn helped promote the events (“Tea or coffee? No, we serve science instead” ran the headline of a piece in the Business Daily).

The audience turnout, said Juliette, has been phenomenal.  “We now have to turn people away,” she said, as the venues can’t handle a large capacity.

One positive effect of the cafés is that the in-depth discussions of science topics have led to high quality journalism.

“There’s better coverage of a topic than from issuing a standard press release,” she said.

After a recent science café on women’s health issues (which was for women only), attendees were followed up by e-mail.  Ninety five percent of the women had never seen a gynecologist before, and half of them said that the café had prompted them to go and get a cervical smear test for the first time in their lives.

“When we started,” said Juliette, “we thought ‘we need to start engaging people in science,’ but now we need to look at the public health impact.”

Future science cafés, she said, will be more strategic in terms of telling the audience about where they can get more information. “It’s hard to get information in Kenya.  We need to pair with associations like the Kenya Medical Association to help answer people’s questions.”

Interested in attending Nairobi’s next science café?  The topic will be information technologies, the café will be on 12th September at 1.30pm at the Alliance Francaise Restaurant (Jardin de Paris), and you can reserve a spot by e-mailing kenyan.scicafe@gmail.com.

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