With over 40% of the global population living within 100km of the coast – a trend on the rise – and increasingly exposed to climate risks, urgent and innovative adaptation solutions are needed to face the many and diverse challenges to the communities and the ecosystems in these areas. Through a joint call for fellows launched by the AXA Research Fund and UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission as part of the Ocean Decade, seven ground-breaking postdoctoral research projects have been endorsed as part of the Ocean Decade and will strengthen science-based interventions for coastal livelihood preservation and resilience.
During her two-year AXA Research Fund fellowship at the University of Leeds, U.K., Dr. Nwamaka Okeke-Ogbuafor, from Nigeria, will seek to unlock ocean-based solutions that will contribute to community resilience in Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa, by eradicating hunger and generating income from fishing.
Trained in social science research methods and digital humanities, Nwamaka – one of the seven selected fellows – enjoys developing bespoke participatory research methods and linking data across diverse data resources. “My approach is cross-cutting. I collaborate between research institutions, UN, the private sector, NGOs, and especially community-based groups to deliver research impacts and create change in my case communities and beyond,” she explains.
Despite hopes that the world would recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and food security would begin to improve, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 report, severe food insecurity increased to 11.7% of the global population. The number of people unable to afford a healthy diet around the world also rose by 112 million – to almost 3.1 billion, indicating how many more people were unable to access safe, nutritious and sufficient food. The African continent bore the heaviest burden, with more than one in five people facing hunger in 2021.
“Hunger and poverty are more severe in coastal areas of many African and Small Island Developing States, where climate change continues to impact on already fragile livelihoods,” points out Nwamaka.
Sierra Leone, in West Africa, is home to some of the poorest communities on the planet. Approximately 60% of its seven million people live on less than $2 per day, and 31% of its children are malnourished. Three-quarters of the country’s population is dependent on fish for food, putting a strain on wild fish stocks, which are diminishing due to climate change and overfishing.
“By integrating capture fisheries and aquaculture, coastal communities could use aquaculture as a supplementary or alternative livelihood. This would improve food security and nutrition, provide more reliable sources of income and reduce pressure on fish stocks,” she says.
Nwamaka’s research will be most relevant to the achievement of Ocean Decade Challenge 3, which aims to generate knowledge, support innovation and develop solutions to optimize the role of the ocean in sustainably feeding the world’s population under changing environmental, social and climate conditions.
Launched in August 2022, the project uses a bottom-up approach based on participatory science to effectively engage and empower coastal communities to apply their local knowledge and first-hand experience in policy-making processes.
To gauge the likelihood of support for various solutions, including implementing environmentally friendly aquaculture, Nwamaka crowdsourced ideas and questions from members of the public. Knowledge and ideas gained during this initial phase were used to develop questions for the second stage of data collection, which took place in the Bonthe, Tumbo and Goderich case communities through semi-structured face-to-face interviews, focus group discussions and survey questionnaire.
“Emerging themes suggest that while inland communities in Sierra Leone see aquaculture as a promising source of income, nutrition and food security, fishers in coastal communities are so attached to marine capture fisheries that they are reluctant to adopt aquaculture, despite the negative effect of climate change and overfishing on wild fisheries,” she details.
To develop a sustainable marine food security policy that integrates marine capture fisheries and aquaculture in a form that communities can own, Nwamaka’s project will analyze the sentiments expressed by coastal communities about aquaculture and their strong preference for wild fisheries. Together with a study of quantitative economic data on investments in wild fisheries and aquaculture, this will form the basis of the co-creation activities with the Sierra Leonean government and other stakeholders, including end-users, to provide informational, financial and logistic support for commercial and subsistence aquaculture in coastal communities.
The expected outcome is a co-created marine food security policy that will improve the resilience of coastal communities through quicker recovery from the impacts of climate change on livelihoods while also conserving biodiversity.
Her research project will also feed a climate risk insurance strategy to protect vulnerable coastal communities. It will help close the data gap on climate risks, by mapping out the effects of climate change on fisheries and aquaculture in various communities and how communities respond to these threats now and in the future. The findings aim to provide the first empirical data on which insurance companies can base their development of climate risk insurance and aid in improving community resilience.
“I want to bring about positive change by facilitating the sharing of ocean knowledge across the science-society-policy interface, which is at the very core of sustainable development,” says Nwamaka.
For more details on Nwamaka’s project, visit her Action page on the Ocean Decade website and her project page on the AXA Research Fund website.
For more details on all the winning projects, visit the AXA Postdoctoral Fellows page.
The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC/UNESCO) promotes international cooperation in marine sciences to improve management of the ocean, coasts and marine resources. The IOC enables its 150 Member States to work together by coordinating programmes in capacity development, ocean observations and services, ocean science and tsunami warning. The work of the IOC contributes to the mission of UNESCO to promote the advancement of science and its applications to develop knowledge and capacity, key to economic and social progress, the basis of peace and sustainable development.
About the Ocean Decade:
Proclaimed in 2017 by the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) (‘the Ocean Decade’) seeks to stimulate ocean science and knowledge generation to reverse the decline of the state of the ocean system and catalyse new opportunities for sustainable development of this massive marine ecosystem. The vision of the Ocean Decade is ‘the science we need for the ocean we want’. The Ocean Decade provides a convening framework for scientists and stakeholders from diverse sectors to develop the scientific knowledge and the partnerships needed to accelerate and harness advances in ocean science to achieve a better understanding of the ocean system and deliver science-based solutions to achieve the 2030 Agenda. The UN General Assembly mandated UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC/UNESCO) to coordinate the preparations and implementation of the Decade.
About the AXA Research Fund:
The AXA Research Fund was launched in 2008 to address the most important issues facing our planet. Its mission is to support scientific research in key areas related to risk and to help inform science-based decision-making in both the public and private sectors. Since its launch, the AXA Research Fund has committed a total of €250M to scientific funding and supported over 700 research projects in the areas of health, climate and environment, and socioeconomics.
 FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2022. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022. Repurposing food and agricultural policies to make healthy diets more affordable. Rome, FAO.