Centres of Excellence are informing policy decisions

The African Centres of Excellence project in the West and Central Africa region has made huge strides in advancing research, some of which is already informing policy decisions and solving pressing problems in Africa, ranging from malaria and Ebola to coastal flooding and erosion.

The centres, based at universities, have also come up with innovations and solutions to challenges on health, ICT, energy, the environment as well as the delivery and access to education, while increasing their visibility and drawing the attention of governments.

Some of the research findings generated through the centres have led to the funding of government projects by donors, while at the same time attracting additional funding to themselves [the centres], on top of the funding by the World Bank.

These have happened as they established thematic research networks, and as they forged critical multidisciplinary collaborations within the region and beyond that are potentially ensuring project sustainability beyond the bank’s funding period.

Testimonies by academics running the centres reveal a positive assessment of the eight-year-old project, forecasting a bright future for lasting academic and research linkages for the centres that have trained thousands of postgraduate students in science, technology, engineering and maths, or STEM disciplines, since 2014.

The testimonies also reveal that the researchers engaged in the centres have been embraced by the governments in their countries, where they are regularly being consulted in their fields of expertise and are sitting on critical government panels, it emerged at a session of the high-level meeting titled the ‘African Higher Education Centers of Excellence: A pathway toward sustainable development’ in Washington, DC in the United States on 17-18 October.

Research on health and well-being

At the Africa Centre of Excellence for Biotechnical Innovations for the Elimination of Vector-borne Diseases, or ITECH-MTV, at the Nazi Boni University in Burkina Faso, researchers were developing innovative ways to fight malaria using gene-editing techniques by targeting and altering the fertility gene in three species of mosquito responsible for the deadly disease, said the centre’s Professor Abdoulaye Diabaté.

They were developing a “single cost-effective technology to eliminate the pests and hopefully end the need for bed nets, drugs and other costs associated with dealing with the disease”, he added.

“In three years’, time we will have genetically altered mosquitoes to help fight malaria. Right now, we are getting ready by seeking the necessary permissions for their release, which may happen in about seven years’ time,” the researcher told a session on the day of the meeting.

Equally promising is research work by the Africa Centre of Excellence for Population Health and Policy, or ACEPHAP BUK, at Bayero University, Nigeria, which, according to Professor Hadiza Galadanci, was undertaking trials on managing postpartum haemorrhage in mothers. If successful, it could lead to a policy change on the condition by the World Health Organization.

The centre had partnered with the United Kingdom’s University of Birmingham for trials which could help significantly to cut numbers of maternal deaths in Africa.

“We are doing research across Sustainable Development Goal Three (SDG3), which focuses on ‘good health and well-being’ including to end preventable mortality for children under five years, recognising that 65% of such deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Galadanci noted.

In addition, research was under way at the centre meant to find ways of managing anaemia using magnesium sulphate therapy, as well as a guide for tackling obstructed labour during delivery.

In addition, they had participated in research which confirmed that, indeed, there was high morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 during pregnancy, she revealed.

In addition, the centre had pioneered five different MSc programmes on health and policy, all meant to ensure that research is, as much as possible, translated into policy, Galadanci disclosed.

A focus on communicable diseases

On its part, the Africa Centre of Excellence in Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases (PCMT) at the University Gamal Abdel Nasser, Conakry, Guinea, had conducted a study to assess the country’s capacity to respond to COVID-19, according to the node’s Professor Alexandre Delamou.

Being based in a country that had, in the past, suffered outbreaks of Ebola, the centre was supporting epidemic responses by producing knowledge on epidemic communication for health workers, besides capacity-building and training for the same group of workers via short courses.

The PCMT was also participating and sitting in the national scientific committee on epidemics such as Ebola, he added.

One of the networks created is the West African Network of Infectious Diseases ACEs, or WANIDA, which, according to its coordinator, Olivia Koupaki, was born at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was meant to leverage on local knowledge in addressing various health challenges in the region, she said.

The network had increased visibility of the entire ACE initiative through sharing among members advertisements for opportunities for grants, publications and various programmes, she disclosed.

“Due to the multi-centre, multi-country nature of the network, we have attracted funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, for example, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust are now attracted to our work due the partnership aspect – and being able to work together for greater impact,” she said.

Inclusion of women

At the National Open University of Nigeria, Professor Grace Jokthan of the Centre of Excellence on Technology-Enhanced Learning (ACETEL), told the meeting that institutions had come up with strategies for the social inclusion of women and the poor, with respect to accessing education.

The centre, she said, was utilising technology under the ODEL (open distance e-learning) model to ensure that women accessed education by, among others, being flexible in terms of learning time as well as fees charged.

“Our programmes have been deliberately designed to ensure women can access pedagogy that discriminates against them under normal leaning models,” she explained.

As a result, out of the 200 students enrolled at the centre, 75% of them were women, attracted by flexibility of studies that also extended to exams, which are administered online. A lot of men were calling the centre wanting to enrol their wives, she added.

The government of Ghana had also won a US$150 million grant from the World Bank, to do research on coastal ecologies. Professor Denis Aheto and colleagues at the Centre of Excellence for Coastal Resilience (ACECoR) are based at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

The centre, he said, has introduced a degree programme on coastal engineering to address flooding and erosion of shorelines, noting that as many as 30% of the West African region’s populations were dependent on coastal ecosystems. This was besides generating 60 peer-reviewed journal articles related to its theme.

It had also established collaborative partnerships with, among others, the African Union on coastal issues, the blue economy and social resilience, and was attracting additional support from the United States Agency for International Development, the professor added.