FACE-TO-FACE: WITH UNZA CEO, PROF LUKE MUMBA

Who would have ever imagined that a child raised by a marketeer in a broken African home would someday breeze through elite universities, become an internationally acclaimed professor, lead African scientists, and today reign as University of Zambia (UNZA) Vice Chancellor?

This reporter had what someone would call a privilege of the century to personally meet, face-on, with the jovial Professor Luke Evuta Mumba and grill him about his terrific ascension through academia and industry.

Admittedly, this writer found this University Vice Chancellor to be a statesman of science with one of the richest Curricula Vitarum (CV) any man can ever wish to earn. Despite this observation, the VC proved to be a highly tolerant and approachable person.

Professor Luke Mumba was freshly minted UNZA graduate in 1985 when—after serving as a Staff Development Fellow (SDF) at the institution—he seized on a rare opportunity to study at the University College of Swansea in the United Kingdom, under the aegis of the British Council.

While at the institution, Professor Mumba pursued a master’s degree in Molecular Genetics and Biotechnology, thereby breaking new ground as the first Zambian to specialise in that particular field.

His Swansea journey was followed by an enormous bang in 1987 when he emerged as the overall best postgraduate student, and thus scooped the coveted Rodger Gilbert Memorial Award, a badge of honour named after an eminent British geneticist.

His Early Life 

Professor Mumba was born in Eastern Province on 6 August, 1962 to Ivuta Njovu and Alinesi Chosaziwa Mwanza, as the couple’s third child.

His Christian name is Luke, and, ironically, he has a surname different from that of his father. His explanation is that “In the olden days, a child did not wear the surname of its father!”

Whereas his mother was a simple marketeer in Lusaka’s Linda Compound, Professor Mumba’s father worked for the Kitwe City Council as a supervisor.

When he was 5 years old, his parents went through an acrimonious divorce that would see him being raised under hostile conditions by a single mother, who would bring him up as a devout Christian in the Catholic Church.

“The support I received from my mother, my late elder brother Kambani Mumba, and my other siblings, was just the right catalyst I needed to drive me along to realise my dream,” disclosed Professor Mumba.

He started school at the age of 7 at Bayuni Primary School in Makeni, and later attended Chilanga Primary School and Munkolo Primary School and then proceeded to Kafue Boys.

Upon completion of his form-five, in 1980, Professor Mumba was conscripted into the Chiwoko Zambia National Service Military Camp in Katete.

He passed out of the Camp in June of 1981, the year that his first-class form five Cambridge examination results were published.

Contrary to his childhood dream of being a medical doctor, Professor Mumba enrolled into the Kitwe Secondary Teachers’ Training College, now Mukuba University, to pursue a career as a teacher of  science.

His Undergraduate Journey

But after spending just a fortnight at the college, the professor withdrew, in preference for his newly awarded place at UNZA. This rekindle his initial dream of medicine.

This experience earned him a place on his family tree as the first child to complete form five and, as a consolation prize, reach university.

Despite winning himself a place at UNZA, Professor Mumba decided to demonstrate altruism by giving up his ambitions of medical doctor in order to study a four-year programme that would enable him enter employment and support his siblings back home.  So he enrolled for biology and chemistry.

Professor Mumba  graduated from UNZA in 1985 with merit. The then-UNZA VC,  Zambia’s first President, Dr Kenneth Kaunda, conferred the degree on the jubilant Mumba. Present at Professor Mumba’s graduation was his mother and elder brother, Kambani Mumba.

Upon graduation, Profesor Mumba was retained by UNZA as a SDF, the first job of his life. Working for UNZA as a fresh graduate, Professor Mumba used the little he earned to support his family.

His Love Life Begins Here

However, he was not to be an SDF for a long time as it was during the same year of 1985 that he won a British Council Fellowship that saw him enter the University College of Swansea.

By the time of his departure for Swansea, Professor Mumba had already married Rose, the love of his life. But since the scholarship did not cater for family, Professor Mumba had to leave his small family behind in the care of his brother.

He graduated from Swansea in 1987 and returned to Zambia and, in the same year, he flew back to Zambia to teach genetics, molecular biology, biotechnology and biostatistics at UNZA, from 1987 to 1991, during which time he also served as Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Affairs in the School of Natural Sciences.

The Journey to PhD

In 1991, Professor Mumba, again, left Zambia to study for his PhD at Cambridge University through Beit Trust, having emerged victorious in a cut-throat scholarship competition on regional level, in Africa.

While at Cambridge, Mumba attended a conference of world leading scientists in America’s Idaho State to present a paper on his preliminary PhD research results.

He was at Cambridge until 1994 when he completed his PhD in a record time of only three years!

In the same year,Professor Mumba declined an offer to be a research fellow at the Genetics Department at Downing Street in Cambridge.

True to his love for Zambia, he decided to return home and take up re-appointment in the UNZA Department of Biology as  Lecturer Grade II, teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students.

In 1995, he was appointed as Head of UNZA’s Biology Department, and he later served as acting Dean of the UNZA School of Natural Sciences, from 1999 up until 2001, during which year he became Substantive Dean.

While serving as dean, Mumba received a UNESCO research fellowship that saw him work at the Bishop Museum Molecular Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA for 6 months. This took place when

Professor Luke Mumba in his office

his unstinted service at UNZA was rising 18 years.

His progression from SDF to lecturer and later senior lecturer climaxed with his promotion to Associate Professor in 2005, the academic rank he holds to this day.

In 2006 he applied for and scooped the position of Regional Director for the Southern African Network for Biosciences (SANBio) at the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in South Africa.

This massive job saw him responsible for research and development programmes in life sciences in Southern Africa for a decade. He thus took sabbatical leave from UNZA for one year and later converted it to leave of absence until February 2014, when he took early retirement from the University.

The NEPAD job was the brightest spot in his contribution to the development of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in the SADC region and Africa. It was while at NEPAD that Mumba served as coordinator of African scientists that conducted clinical tests on the famous Sondashi Formula.

Through this he became a household name among scientists in Africa, engaging and visiting nearly 90% of all African countries to coordinate various projects and programmes on STI.

He also served as Coordinator of NEPAD Regional Centres and Initiatives.

Additionally, the NEPAD Flagship Programmes on Water Sciences, Laser Technology and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) were placed under his portfolio.

His last position at the NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency (NPCA) was that of Coordinator of African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (ASTII).

Incidentally, Mumba is also a recipient of several honours, notably his appointment in 2012-2014 as an Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Department of Botany & Zoology of the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

In 2013, he was profiled as one of the 10 Extraordinary African Professionals in Science in Africa in a publication by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and the International Foundation for Science (IFS) entitled: “Agricultural Innovations for Sustainable Development”.

His current areas of expertise and research are in plant breeding, biotechnology and biosafety, Science Technology and Innovation Indicators/Policy and emerging fields such as management of intellectual assets related to plant generic resources and traditional knowledge.

He has contributed to the development of many national, regional and international strategies including the African Union Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa-2024 (AU STISA-2024), and he has participated in various conferences and expert consultation panels on Science and Technology.

He is also renowned for having championed dialogue on GMOs both locally and internationally through the Biotechnology Outreach Society of Zambia (BOSZ), a professional NGO he founded, besides serving as keynote speaker at national and international fora on biotechnology in London, Rome, Brussels, Norway and Zambia, to mention but a few.

Moreover, he has published several journal articles and contributed chapters to books.

He has served on the Technical Advisory Board of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB); International Scientific Advisory Board of the Southern African Centre for Infectious Disease Surveillance (SACIDS) and the South Africa Malaria Initiative (SAMI); the African Regional Postgraduate Programme in Insect Science (ARPIS) at the International Centre for Insect Physiology (ICIPE), Kenya.

At home he has been Board Member of the Zambia World Life Authority (ZAWA); Member of the UNZA Council and Senate; Chairman of the National AIDs Council Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC); and currently Member of the National Economic Advisory Council (NEAC).

He returned to UNZA in July 2016 after his decade-long service at NPCA in South Africa.

At the age of only 58 today Professor Mumba is the current CEO of Zambia’s highest learning and research institution, after walking a long road of sacrifice to his homeland and Africa.

He views himself not only as UNZA’s CEO but also as the University’s “chief academician, chief strategist, chief fundraiser and chief image carrier.”

His service at national, regional and continental levels denotes his deep-seated belief in the proposition that the “rent one pays for living on this earth is service to others.”

His position on UNZA is that the establishment “needs transformation into a more relevant and responsive institution and a better place for the current and future generations of proud Zambians.”

He bemoans the current deplorable state of the University and states that it summons serious government intervention, “a Marshall plan of some sort,” to purge it of the shortcomings that undermine its capacity to meet growing demands and to serve the country effectively.

“Best practices elsewhere,” he says, “have shown that investment in quality education by government is an investment into the future.”

The Professor Mumba-led UNZA administration has set out to create strategic alliances and linkages with the private sector, and it is enforcing regular reviews of curricula in the various Schools in order to make them more responsive to the needs of the job market.

He says “Science, Technology and Information (STI) are key drivers for economic growth in developed [and] developing countries, making them important tools for poverty alleviation and wealth creation,” adding that “Africa needs to prioritize STI to bring it up in the political hierarchy.”

He says he has come to appreciate the developmental challenges related to human, institutional and infrastructural capacity for STI in Africa, and that his “aspirations have always been to make [a] contribution” by becoming the change he wants to see.

Married for 34 years with three children and a grandson, Professor Mumba has done so much in his academic and professional career that no one journalist can hope to exhaust in a newspaper article; his story needs a book!

Writers know that it is no easy job to profile a great man, which is why this reporter featured Professor Mumba with indescribable trepidation, having left out countless salient facts that might render him guilty of the sin of understatement.

In the final analysis, however, such is a glimpse into the life of a professor who hails from an indigent family and was raised by a divorcee but overcomes life’s hurdles to study at high-class universities and subsequently finds himself serving his continent and country.

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