Centres of Excellence project – ‘A model that works’

A mid-term review shows that the first phase of the World Bank-funded Africa Centres of Excellence, or ACE, project focused on West and Central Africa is on track and has achieved significant improvement in universities’ training programmes, with strong indications that the project might be considered for further funding.

“The model works,” said Andreas Blom, lead economist in the World Bank’s education units in Africa. He told University World News that in addition to educational achievements, the model had served as an excellent platform for government, university and partner buy-in. The project might be considered for further funding after it ends in 2019, he said.

Launched in 2014 the project has seen the consolidation and strengthening of 19 African centres of excellence in seven countries including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo with funding from the World Bank amounting to US$164 million.

Under the centres, 25 new masters programmes have been created and 11,900 students enrolled in new short-term courses and in masters and PhD programmes. In addition, 4,000 students drawn from the region – of which 290 are PhDs and 1,350 masters in science students – have been trained and half of the universities involved in the project have regional students for the first time.

Blom said the centres have facilitated a positive “trickle-down” impact on institutional excellence and had generated “huge partner interest” in the form of upfront contributions. Most of the centres have strong ownership at the university level, with some of them making strong progress on external revenue generation.

The project, while successful, has not been without its challenges.


In some countries, Blom said regulations had to be passed for the ACE project to become operational. Bureaucracy was also a challenge.

“In some countries, there was a lot of red tape around sending the funds to the participating universities,” he said. As a result, some time was lost and programmes were delayed.

In Nigeria there was a shortage of dollars which affected the centres in that country, but the Nigerian National Universities Commission worked directly with the ACEs to pay big purchases directly with suppliers, said Blom.

The World Bank worked closely with the Association of African Universities, among other organisations, to facilitate the implementation of ACE I. In its first iteration, 15 centres were selected from 52 applications, with Nigeria winning 10 of them. Four more centres followed.

One of the spin-offs of the project is that universities in the project have managed to raise extra funding on their own to complement the funds received from the World Bank. In 2014 the centres raised a total of US$5.58 million. This was followed by US$6.71 million in 2015 and US$7.19 million in 2016.

Individual institutions such as the University of Ghana have so far managed to raise US$6 million from the UK’s Wellcome Trust. The African Centre of Excellence in Information and Communication Technologies in Yaoundé, Cameroon, raised US$2 million from the French Development Agency and US$1 million from the European Union.

The African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in Nigeria received US$2 million from the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Defense.

In addition, the Center for the Study and Research of Administrative and Political Sciences in France, the University of Ghana and the African Centre of Excellence on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Agriculture in Ivory Coast teamed up to secure three tranches of US$500,000 from the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD.

At a recent review meeting, Nigeria’s National Universities Commission said its government will incorporate and sustain the African Centre of Excellence projects in the Nigerian university system after the World Bank intervention ends.

Global partnerships

As a result of global partnerships, institutions involved in the project have managed to raise their quality of training to meet global standards. In total, 12 education programmes have been accredited internationally, including those at the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering or 2iE in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Gaston Berger University in Senegal; the University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon; and the University of Ghana.

Redeemer's University in Nigeria started working with Harvard University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, while the University of Cocody partnered with the University of Bremen in Germany. The University of Ghana partnered with the University of Illinois in the United States and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

The University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria forged a new relationship with the Institute of Petroleum Studies in France and the University of Lomé in Togo hooked up with the largest French-speaking Catholic university, Louvain, in Belgium.

In addition, the project has helped African universities to raise their contribution to international research. For example, research on the Ebola virus has been published in top international journals Nature and Science by the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases.

Partnering with industry

According to Blom, at least 800 students have undergone a one-month internship through the ACE project but he said more strategic partnerships with industry were needed.

“Our priorities were too broad and there was a need for central planning targeting key professions and capacity in fields that include energy, particularly smart grids, transport, urban planning and economics focusing on agriculture and health,” he said.

He said the role of industry needed to be enhanced by forging stronger upfront industry involvement, possibly through a consortia model and employers should be involved in the funding, provision and supervision of the ACE, he said.

Blom suggested that there be a closer working relationship between the ACE project and the World Bank’s Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology, which seeks to promote high-level growth and productivity through technical and vocational education and training, higher education, as well as research and innovation in applied sciences.

The ultimate aim was to build Pan-African scholarship and benchmarking, and institutionalise a West and Central African Centre of Excellence with the Economic Community of West African States.


The second ACE project – focused on Eastern and Southern Africa – commenced in October last year. It seeks to strengthen 24 competitively selected university research centres to deliver quality, market relevant postgraduate education and research.

Financed to the tune of US$140 million in the form of credit to eight participating countries, the five-year project will see the development of centres to build collaborative research capacity in five regional priority areas: agriculture, applied statistics, education, health, and industry (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The eight countries include Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Each centre of excellence receives US$4.5 million to US$6 million to implement its proposal.

Over the project duration of five years, the centres are expected to collectively enrol more than 3,500 graduate students in the regional development priority areas, among whom more than 700 will be PhD students and more than 1,000 must be female.

Into the future, the expectation is that universities and governments will continue to support the centres of excellence after the initial funding boost. The Inter-University Council for East Africa, an institution of the East African Community based in Uganda, which is regionally facilitating the ACE II project, will receive a total of US$8 million to oversee its coordination, facilitation and administration.

As the ACE project delivers strong and tangible results, there is hope for renewed funding even if the private sector and African governments strongly support it.

“We are available for another selection if there is an interest from governments, universities and regional organisations,” Blom said.