Leila Abubakar

Prof Leila Abubakar blames prevalence of retrogressive culture and lack of role models among the challenges undermining education at the Coast. 

| Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

Meet Prof Leila Abubakar, the Technical University of Mombasa’s vice-chancellor

What you need to know:

  • Prof Abubakar, 59, the first female vice-chancellor from the Coast, has been championing girls’ education in the region for years.
  • She blamed the prevalence of retrogressive culture, lack of role models and historical factors among challenges affecting education in the region.

When she is not attending to administrative matters at the Technical University of Mombasa (TUM) where she is vice-chancellor, you will find Prof Leila Abubakar traversing the coastal counties of Lamu, Kwale, Kilifi, Tana River and Taita Taveta mentoring girls.

Prof Abubakar, 59, is the first female vice-chancellor from the region. She has been a champion of girls’ education at the Coast for years, encouraging them to join universities and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions, and because of this, and her achievement as a professor of biochemistry, Prof Abubakar, is a household name in the Coast region.

Despite Technical University of Mombasa having 17,000 students, only 5,000 of these are female, with a big number not being from the coastal region.

This is a fact that greatly bothers the professor. To address the situation, Prof Abubakar has been partnered with a number of stakeholders in an effort to boost the low number of local students at the three coast-based higher learning institutions.

The professor served as the deputy vice-chancellor at TUM from 2013 to 2016, replacing Prof Josphat Mwatela as acting VC in 2017. In 2018, she was appointed the substantive VC by then education CS, Amina Mohammed, to become the first Kenyan Muslim female vice-chancellor.

She was top in an impressive shortlist that included Maseno University DVC (partnerships, research and innovations) Joseph Sarima Chacha, Isaiah Omollo, a professor of chemistry at Kenyatta University, Colins Ouma, a professor of genetics at Maseno University, Douglas Shitanda, the DVC for administration, planning and finance at Machakos University, and Maurice Amutabi, the Kisii University DVC (academic and students affairs).

“If I did it, any girl can do it. I defied hardship and stereotypes among other challenges facing the girl-child at the Coast to become a professor. I grew up at Sparki in Mombasa, but since childhood, I had decided my fate, I wanted to be a scholar,” says the professor.

Professor Halimu Shauri, who is also a champion of girls’ education in the region, lauded Prof Abubakar’s appointment as vice-chancellor as a major feat.

“It was historical because since independence, we have never had a woman vice-chancellor from the Coast region - she has been using her position to empower more women. Being a native has awakened the rest to take education seriously,” said Prof Shauri.

She observed that most students from the Coast come from humble backgrounds and are not aware of the available opportunities. With poverty, rampant drug abuse, early marriage and teenage pregnancies being blamed for the low transitional rates of learners from primary to secondary and higher education, Prof Abubakar has been partnering with Changamwe MP Omar Mwinyi, a former teacher, and Mombasa deputy governor Dr William Kingi, a former lecturer, to create awareness about the many available opportunities in education.

“For a long time, the Coast child has been lacking role models, but after the establishment of universities (in the region), they can acquire knowledge and expertise in different skills,” she says.

She blamed the prevalence of retrogressive culture, lack of role models and historical factors among challenges affecting education in the region.

"We must lead by example, encourage them to work hard and trust the process. Scholars teaching at the universities have a role to play as role models to be emulated to stimulate greater achievements in national examinations,” she commented.

She urged parents to take their children, especially those who fail to meet the cut-off marks for direct entry to university, for TVET programmes.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Kenya, Prof Abubakar worked hard to ensure minimal disruption of learning at TUM, and when the government shut down learning institutions, she helped the Mombasa County government to deal with the pandemic by seconding experts from the institution’s School of Medicine, offering TUM to be turned into a 300-bed capacity Covid-19 treatment centre.

The engineering department, whose course is accredited with the Engineering Board of Kenya, designed mass sanitising booths while the department of applied and health sciences produced sanitisers for the county government. 

Up until 2013, TUM was a constituent college of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and was later granted a charter by former President Mwai Kibaki. 

Born in 1962, Prof Abubakar holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Nairobi, an active researcher, she has won several research grants and awards.

She sat her East African Certificate of Education examinations at Star of the Sea Secondary School in Mombasa, thereafter, in 1980, sitting her Kenya Advanced Certificate of Education at Allidina Visram High School, Mombasa.

“My research interests include molecular basis of vector-parasite interactions and bio-prospecting in marine and freshwater environments. In 2011/2012, I was accorded the University of Nairobi Deans’ Award for Scholarship and Research,” she said, during the interview with Higher Education.

Between 1998 and 2002, she worked with the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). She was involved in unraveling the mystery of why only tsetse flies, and not other blood-sucking insects, transmit African Trypanosomiasis.

“She has isolated and characterised a lectizyme (a protein with lectin and protease activity) that was involved in the establishment of trypanosome infections in tsetse midguts. As a result, she was awarded first prize at the XII Molecular Parasitology Conference held at Woodshole Oceanographic Institute, USA and 1st Prize ICIPE Governing Council Research Award in 2002,” reads part of her CV.

The win did not stop her quest and thirst for learning, researching and discovering. In 2003 to 2007, Prof Abubakar and her colleagues won the Sida/SAREC Lake Victoria Research (VicRes) Initiative grant to design systems and evaluate the potential of wetlands-based aquaculture to generate wealth in the Lake Victoria basin. The findings of the above study were later adopted by the government under the Economic Stimulus Programme.

“I have developed a special interest in assessing the potential of microalgae for feedstock and bio-fuel in Kenya,” Prof Abubakar says.

She says being in a managerial position has not hindered her quest for education.

“I have maintained an active academic and professional link with several universities. I have successfully supervised and examined over 20 postgraduate students and published several papers in refereed journals,” she points out.

Between 2011 and 2013, she was granted Sh7 million by the National Council for Science and Technology to study insects as food sources for improving food security, rural livelihoods and adaptation to climate change.

The same year, she got a second prize for research dissemination on microalgae species biodiversity and their potential for biofuel in Kenya during the fourth National Council for Science and Technology National Conference in Nairobi.

This is not all, in 2009, she received Sh1.9 million during the National Council for Science and Technology ST and I Grant on “Microalgae species biodiversity and their potential for biofuel in Kenya”.

Other accolades include being awarded the First Prize Poster Award during the XII Molecular Parasitology Conference, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in  the US, as wells as the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Ph.D fellowship and the European Union Fellowship (M.Sc degree between 1990 to 1993.

At the University of Nairobi, she was acting chair at the Department of Biochemistry, acting associate Dean, Pre-clinicals, School of Medicine, associate professor, Department of Biochemistry, senior lecturer, Department of Biochemistry.