ARUA to add seven Centres of Excellence in the next year

The African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) will increase the number of Centres of Excellence it runs from 13 to 20 in the next 12 months in response to the need for increased university-led knowledge output in priority scientific areas.

The seven additional centres will be created with expected funding from the European Union (EU) and will be focused, among other goals, on pursuing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

This has also been the focus of one of the alliance’s most prominent centres, the Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS) which is contributing towards SDG 2 (zero hunger) and SDG 3 (good health and well-being).

The ARUA-SFS was established with the financial support of the UK’s Research and Innovation Fund (UKRI).

“We have engaged the EU with the aim of increasing the number of centres to 20, and this will allow our universities to bid and host more centres,” said ARUA Secretary General Ernest Aryeetey.

According to ARUA’s strategic plan, it is aiming to set up 27 centres in the next five years.

Aryeetey said the centres will be expected to engage in collaborative interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, seeking solutions for transboundary problems affecting Africa. Many problems start as local challenges before becoming transboundary in nature, calling for a collective approach in addressing them.

Universities do 95% of Africa’s research

Solving these challenges calls for more joint and collaborative research between the Global North and South, with funding for such endeavours being directed to universities which, Aryeetey noted, conduct 95% of all research done in Africa.

“We are appealing for continued support for research initiatives in our universities because we know that, unlike in the Global North, it is in universities that the bulk of research in the South takes place,” he told the opening session of the ARUA-SFS Science Days and High-Level Colloquium hosted by the University of Pretoria on 24 August.

Aryeetey said such support could come in the form of seed funding or matched grants, and may also require the political will to secure financial support from governments.

Securing enough funding to drive requisite research in Africa required deliberate efforts from the entire African research community, he said, noting that the advocacy approach taken by ARUA in engaging with bodies such as the EU and the African Union was necessary.

He said there was a need to rethink North-South research collaboration after the pandemic, noting that a “new commitment” was needed to strengthen them.

While partnerships were a way to counter the low research output in Africa, it is also important to ensure joint ownership of projects. Collaborators should ensure that partnerships did not end up becoming “competitions”, Aryeetey said.

One way of ensuring partnerships were sustainable was by jointly structuring the research work, as opposed to the common practice whereby the funding side designed everything before sharing it with the other partners.

Four flagship projects

Professor Lindiwe Sibanda, ARUA-SFS director and chair, said the aim was to create an engaging global network of talented researchers in transdisciplinary research to address complex societal challenges in Africa’s food system.

The centre has focused on five research areas: improving Africa’s herds; unleashing the potential of Africa’s crops; safe, nutritious and consumer-driven foods; evidence-led food policy and climate-smart food systems.

The centre has produced a total of 28 publications since 2018, and has nine post-doctoral fellows from Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe attached to it.

ARUA-SFS runs four flagship projects: Capacity-Building in Food Security, (CaBFoodS-Africa), the Food and Livelihood Resilience from Neglected and Underutilised Plant Species in Africa (FSNet-Africa), the Climate, Land, Agriculture and Biodiversity (CLAB-Africa), and the Food Systems Transformation in Southern Africa for One Health (FoSTA-Health).

The ARUA-SFS was established in 2018 as a partnership between the host, the University of Pretoria, and collaborating partner institutions of the University of Ghana and the University of Nairobi.