Population Health

April 27, 2021

Spotlight: Francis Abugbilla focuses on post-conflict peacebuilding mechanisms

Image of Francis AbugbillaFrancis Mbawini Abugbilla is a Ph.D. candidate at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and 2020 Population Health Social Entrepreneurship Fellow. His research focus is Peace, Violence and Security, with his dissertation focusing on post-conflict peacebuilding mechanisms in Africa.

Abugbilla grew up in the Bawku West District of Ghana, raised as a farmer in a small agricultural community.

“I am a first-generation student and the first in my extended family to get a bachelor’s degree,” Abugbilla said. “I am the third person in my community to get a bachelor’s degree and the first to get a master’s degree.”

From an early age, Abugbilla realized an interest in international relations after observing electoral violence in Africa.

“I decided to study and understand the root causes of electoral violence in Africa,” Abugbilla said. “Most African countries use either French or English as their official language, so I understood that having knowledge in both languages was critical to study this subject.”

Abugbilla was motivated to study French, obtaining a Bachelor of Education Honors Degree in French with a minor in English from the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

Following this, Abugbilla taught at the University of Ghana, under the department of French as a national service person. In addition to serving as a teaching assistant, he was an administrative assistant for the Maison Française, a cooperation between the French Embassy and the University of Ghana. In this role, Abugbilla helped organize events for the embassy and promoted higher education opportunities in francophone studies.

“Having knowledge in both English and French and having theoretical and empirical understandings of conflicts and conflict resolution mechanisms will enable my work to make a tremendous impact on the continent [of Africa],” Abugbilla said. “That is what motivated me to study international relations.”

Abugbilla subsequently pursued a Master of Arts in Francophone Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. After completing his master’s degree, he began his doctoral studies at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.

He was named the 2017-2018 Henry M. Jackson Doctoral Fellow and centered his research on post-conflict peacebuilding mechanisms in Africa. Of special interest to Abugbilla are collective action efforts by grassroots participation in conflict resolution.

This interest manifests in his research efforts and his continued endeavors to support and empower agricultural communities. This is readily seen in his work as a 2020 Social Entrepreneurship Fellow.

The fellowship program is a collaboration between the Population Health Initiative, the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, CoMotion and the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance. It is a 10-week program held each summer annually, supporting UW graduate students in creating social enterprise models for UW researchers’ innovations.

For his project, Abugbilla worked with researchers from the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences to develop a sustainable business model for PestiSeguro/PestiSafe, a mobile app that delivers pesticide safety information in Spanish to support vulnerable agricultural populations.

“I come from an agricultural community and have experience as a farmer, so I wanted to understand more about pesticides and how they impact the environment and consumers,” Abugbilla said. “I know there are farmers who use pesticides and fertilizers but do not know how to use them safely.”

Recognizing this challenge and the mobile app’s potential to help this underserved population, Abugbilla was eager to combine his expertise in international relations and linguistic studies to create a sustainable business model for the app.

“The [Social Entrepreneurship] Fellowship has been an incredibly impactful fellowship,” Abugbilla said. “It gave me the practical tools to allow me to then go on and explain [aspects of agricultural safety] to others and spread information about how farmers can protect themselves.”

Noting the interdisciplinary aspect of the research, Abugbilla remarked that the collaboration and mentorship received from the program supervisors and his colleagues were instrumental to the fellowship’s success.

“My mentors, Dr. Meher Antia and Dr. Emer Dooley, who guided me throughout my fellowship period, were incredibly helpful. As were Dr. Akhtar Badshah and Kelly Meining of CoMotion,” Abugbilla said. “I am indebted to them for enriching my experience as a fellow.”

From this research over the summer of 2020, Abugbilla developed several potential business models for the researchers. The models identified core audiences for the PestiSeguro/PestiSafe application and navigated paths to sustainable funding sources for the mobile app’s development and dissemination.

“The interdisciplinary nature of the fellowship was paramount in helping all of [the fellows] write good reports,” Abugbilla said. “Each fellow brought perspectives from various angles to contribute to addressing critical population health issues.”

Since the fellowship program and the onset of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, Abugbilla has returned to his native Ghana and has been proactive in supporting the COVID-19 response in Ghana.

Leveraging connections and resources, Abugbilla organized funding from the US to support the COVID-19 response in Ghana. The funding supported the Zebilla Hospital in Ghana in obtaining personal protective equipment materials.

“I am interested in impacting lives,” Abugbilla said. “I hope to give people the opportunity to advance in life and provide a solid foundation in terms of education for deprived communities in Ghana.”

In addition to supporting the country’s COVID-19 response, Abugbilla also fundraised to acquire funds to install solar panels in primary and junior high schools in his community in Ghana.

“The [UW] community has been very helpful to my efforts,” Abugbilla said. “I think that all that I have done would not have been possible without the credibility I have received through my education at the University of Washington. I am really privileged to be part of the UW community to get these opportunities to impact my community in Ghana and the country at large.”

From these ground-level impacts, Abugbilla hopes that his work will compel locals to mobilize and impact their communities, especially as it relates to his work’s emphasis on post-conflict peacebuilding.

“My research aims to propose local mechanisms to traditional African peacebuilding initiatives that can be revived and sustained,” Abugbilla said. “It is important to take into consideration the different groups and dynamics on the ground, [and] the power of the local people to influence change.”