Propelling the agenda for change in Africa

Kirsty Scott

15 February 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening global peace, security and governance

My dream is to drive meaningful change for the betterment of my continent and working at UNESCO helps me achieve that because it is the only UN agency where Africa is a global priority.

Julia Negumbo

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) contributes to peace and security by promoting international cooperation in education, sciences, culture, communication, and information. It promotes knowledge sharing and the free flow of ideas to accelerate mutual understanding and a more perfect knowledge of each other’s lives. UNESCO’s programmes contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals defined in the 2030 Agenda, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015.

Commonwealth Alumnus Julia Negumbo joined UNESCO in May 2022 through its Young Professional Programme, which provides talented young professionals from non- and under-represented member states with international careers in the organisation.

As the Associate Liaison Officer in the Sector for Priority Africa and External Relations, Julia is responsible for strengthening UNESCO’s relations with African member states and partners. This involves acting as the intermediary between African member states and UNESCO for a range of tasks, including the preparation of briefs and reports for executive and diplomatic correspondences to support high-level engagements, such as the UNESCO Executive Board and General Conference Plenary Debates.

Working with states to deliver change

Having already established a 3-year career in international development after her Master’s studies, Julia was keen to join UNESCO to underscore the science-policy nexus. Her home country, Namibia, was underrepresented in UNESCO and addressing the needs of underrepresented and non-member countries, particularly those in Africa, is a core focus of the organisation.

“Why UNESCO and why this specific division that I work in? I am very intentional about making an impact, a very meaningful impact in Africa. Africa is a global priority for UNESCO. I don’t know any other organisation that has Africa as a global priority. That was very central to my decision to work for this specific sector, and UNESCO at large.”

 African medical students, scientists, young women working in research laboratory, medical test labThrough her liaison with African member states, Julia ensures that the needs of these states are reflected in the development of UNESCO programmes. One way in which Julia has achieved this is through her contributions to an exhaustive review of the implementation of five UNESCO flagship programmes which are part of its new Operational Strategy for Priority Africa (OSPA). These flagship programmes address issues identified by African member states as key priorities or challenges and include advancing open science and education, promoting African culture and the use of IR4.0 technologies. As part of her role, Julia coordinates the monitoring of the progress of these programmes in ensuring they meet the needs of African member states.

A big part of my role is to help monitor UNESCO’s implementation of the OSPA to ensure that Africa’s educational, scientific, ICT, and cultural institutions are transformed through interventions that respond to its development challenges as defined by Africans themselves.

SDG 4 Quality Education logoIn 2022, Julia supported the coordination of international UNESCO-led events, including the Transforming Education Summit (New York), the UN-Water Summit on Ground Water (Paris), and the Southern Africa Sub-Regional Forum on Artificial Intelligence (Namibia). For each of these events, Julia was responsible for supporting the participation of numerous African member states.

One of Julia’s proudest achievements during her involvement in these events was the organisation of activities leading up to the Transforming Education Summit, which resulted in the endorsement of two of the OSPA flagship programmes by the African Union.

At the intersection of science and management

Julia completed her undergraduate degree in microbiology and biochemistry at the University of Namibia, after which she worked at a local biotechnology company. Whilst she enjoyed the work, she yearned to make a bigger difference in the world. This inspired her to pursue master’s studies that would deepen her scientific curiosity but also broaden her competencies.

I initially wanted to branch into management in fear of remaining a lab rat all my life. I then began searching for universities that offered interdisciplinary courses. I wasn’t even aware at the time that no such programme existed in Namibia or anywhere else in Africa. That’s basically how I ended up in England and got into the Commonwealth network.

After researching different degrees that would combine her two interests, Julia discovered the MSc in Biotechnology, Bioprocessing and Business Management offered by the University of Warwick, which she was able to pursue after becoming a recipient of the Commonwealth Scholarship. During her master’s degree, she was exposed to a variety of disciplines, ranging from environmental sciences, biotechnology and engineering to business strategy and management. It was this multidisciplinary nature that she found most rewarding about the course. She now regards herself as a generalist rather than a specialist in her original subject area, which she considers pertinent to effective leadership.

What I found most edifying about the course was that it cut across a spectrum of disciplines, which allowed me to develop a global outlook. For one, I was able to appreciate how biotechnology works in the Western world, how it works in developing countries, and where the gaps lie on both sides.

Preventing malnutrition and stunting 

Julia has had many opportunities to put her leadership skills into practice. Between 2021 and 2022, she conceptualised and led an anti-stunting campaign as the Programme Policy Officer for Biotechnology at the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Namibia. At the time, the WFP, which is the largest humanitarian agency mandated to address hunger globally, was in the process of moving from a saving lives agenda to a changing lives agenda to improve the sustainability of its programmes.

The campaign was designed to raise awareness of but also alleviate malnutrition, especially the high prevalence of stunting in Namibia.

School children eating a nutritious meal


Firstly, Julia designed and carried out several baseline studies on the state of nutrition in households, schools, and communities in northern Namibia. The evidence gathered from these studies then enabled Julia and her team to identify the root causes of malnutrition and inform the WFP’s support to vulnerable people in these regions.

Just deploying food parcels alone is not going to fix the problem. If we are to achieve sustainable change, we have to start doing things differently. We must forge evidence-based solutions that are tailored for the specific needs of those they intend to benefit.

Using this evidence, she also designed an innovative, awareness-raising media campaign, which featured local celebrity athletes to promote healthy diets, good nutrition, and healthy eating practices. Whilst this particular campaign focused on social and behaviour change communication, which is a significant challenge in some regions of Namibia, Julia acknowledges that in other parts of the country, food insecurity is the primary driver of stunting, which in turn impedes education outcomes and overall human capital development.

In her career, Julia has also been involved in tackling the risks of food insecurity and malnutrition in Namibian schools through her avant-garde ideas for the transformation of the national school feeding programme, including the introduction of e-vouchers, e-business platforms and nutrition Apps, as well as biofortification of traditional staples. Working with the health and education ministries, the programme supported the provision of healthy, diversified school meals in public schools by forging linkages with local smallholder farmers who would procure the needed supplies. This enabled the provision of healthy meals to Namibian learners and greater economic opportunities for smallholder farmers.

Inspiring aspiring young leaders in Africa

Julia attributes her career progression to the Commonwealth Scholarship and studies at the University of Warwick. Since completing her master’s studies, she has been selected for various prestigious career development programmes.

I’m a perpetual learner. I’m somebody who is always striving to acquire new knowledge. I have a very curious mind. I always want to feel like I’m doing something or morphing towards something that is bigger, more meaningful, and transformational so that when all is done and dusted, my deeds have blazed a bright trail for the forthcoming generations.

This includes being selected as one of the very few non-European young graduates to undertake a five-month traineeship at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Italy. During this traineeship, Julia was assigned to the Commission’s Initiative on Breast Cancer, where she helped to coordinate expert group meetings and provided research support for the development of EU guidelines and a harmonized quality assurance scheme for breast cancer care. Her work directly contributed to the development and adoption of EU-wide scientific policies. Julia explains that this was a unique opportunity for her to contribute and gain exposure to intergovernmental policymaking outside Africa.

“As a young African graduate at the European Commission, the experience allowed me to navigate a culturally diverse context and learn from world-leading scientists. It was an excellent segue into my subsequent role with the UNDP Asia-Pacific region.”

In 2021 she was among 21 young women from 20 African countries selected to constitute the inaugural cohort of the African Union Commission (AUC)-United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) African Young Women Leaders Fellowship Programme. As part of this cohort, she initiated and co-led the development of a storybook capturing the journeys of the 21 women on the programme to inspire aspiring young female leaders in Africa and beyond. Julia is proud to reveal that the book was jointly launched by the UNDP Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for Africa, Mrs Ahunna Eziakonwa, in collaboration with the AU.

Prior to becoming a recipient of the Commonwealth Scholarship, I was just an ordinary village girl who would only imagine her career and future within the confines of her native Namibia. I was bright, but I was also very timid and meek. But as I reflect today on the incredible journey set off by this scholarship, I cannot express enough the amount of confidence and growth that I’ve gained, be it from the three continents I got to work in, or the amazing people I encountered along the way, or the wealth of knowledge I continue to reap today. I’m forever indebted to the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission for the bounteous enrichment and transformation it afforded me.

Julia Negumbo is a 2016 Commonwealth Scholar from Namibia. She completed an MSc Biotechnology, Bioprocessing and Business Management at the University of Warwick.