ACE: Fostering Collaboration, Unity among African Varsities for Devt

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With few days to the end of ACE I, Uchechukwu Nnaike reports that the recently concluded ACE I and ACE Impact workshop in Abuja, provided an opportunity to count the gains of ACE I, as well the needed motivation for ACE Impact centres to work towards surpassing the achievements of ACE I and ensuring sustainable development in their respective countries and Africa

Launched in 2014 with 22 centres of excellence in nine West and Central African countries, the Africa Centres of Excellence (ACE I) Project was aimed to promoting regional specialisation among participating universities in areas that address specific common regional development challenges. It also aims to strengthen the capacities of these universities to deliver quality training and applied research, as well as meet the demand for skills required for Africa’s development.

Five years after, the centres have been commended for achieving their objectives with outstanding research results from some centres. For instance the Africa Centre of Excellence in Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) at the Redeemer’s University, Ede spearheaded the containment of the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014 and subsequently developed a 10-minute testing kit for both the Ebola and Lassa Fever viruses;

Another Nigerian ACE, the Africa Centre of Excellence on Phytomedicine Research and Development (ACEPRD) at the University of Jos also developed the anti-snake venom vaccine known as COVIP-Plus, among several other groundbreaking solutions to various environmental challenges.

The ACE Project is a World Bank initiative, in collaboration with governments of participating countries to support higher education institutions in specialising in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Agriculture, and Health. It is the first World Bank project aimed at the capacity building of higher education institutions in Africa.
The ACE I involved countries like Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo.

The second phase (ACE II) was launched in East and Southern Africa with 24 centres across Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
Based on the initial successes, the World Bank and the French Development Agency (AFD), in collaboration with the African governments, launched the ACE Impact Project in 2018 to strengthen postgraduate training and applied research in existing fields and support new fields that are essential for Africa’s economic growth. There are 43 ACEs (25 new ones and 18 from ACE I); Five Emerging Centres; one “top up” centre in Social Risk Management; and five Colleges and Schools of Engineering.

Thus, the biennial workshop provided an avenue for experience sharing and forging of partnerships for future researches.
So for four days, academics from 12 African countries gathered in Abuja for the 12th Africa Centres of Excellence (ACE I) and third Africa Centres of Excellence for Development Impact (ACE Impact) Project Workshop at the Sheraton Hotel, while the closing ceremony held at the headquarters of the National Universities Commission (NUC).

In his opening remarks, the Executive Secretary of the NUC, Professor Abubakar Rasheed expressed delight that the ACE I centres have met most of the Disbursement Linked Indicators (DLIs), and in some cases, surpassed them. “We must therefore consolidate on the enormous successes recorded,” he said.
He listed the achievements recorded by the ACE I centres to include: Enrolment of regional students from West and Central African countries into the Nigerian University System, for the first time in more than two decades;

The ACE Project has contributed to the production of high-level skilled manpower in specialised areas; it has encouraged interdisciplinary research in the Nigerian University System and also encouraged both institutional and private sector collaborations at national and international levels; among other things.
“The ACE Project remains, to date, the biggest support ever, to research in the Nigerian University System (NUS). The centres have renewed our hope in the capacity and capability of the Nigerian University System to positively impact the country, West Africa and Africa as a whole as our universities are gradually shifting their focus from teaching to research.

“At the regional level, I must congratulate all the ACEs for the achievements recorded in the following areas: enrolment of national and regional students at the masters and PhD levels, participation of students in impactful internships, high masters and PhD graduate output, student participation in the short courses, publications in internationally acclaimed journals, increase in externally generated revenue, partnerships and collaborations as well as achievement of national and international accreditation of programmes.”

However, these achievements were not without challenges. In the case of Nigeria, the challenges include the late commencement of the project, hiccups in project implementation due to the enforcement of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) in 2015, with the associated delay in processing payments, security challenges, strikes and irregular academic calendar, amongst others. The ACEs in other countries all had their challenges as well. Regardless, we overcame them and never looked back. In addition, we have used the lessons learnt to better position for ACE Impact and other projects,” he said.

Rasheed stated that by the end of this month when ACE 1 closes, the NUC will set up a team to document all the achievements of ACE 1 and make recommendations to government on sustaining the gains of the project.
The Minister of State for Education, Hon. Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, who declared the workshop open, said the Federal Government of Nigeria is proud to be one of the countries in the West and Central African sub-regions that collaborated with the World Bank to launch this laudable Project.

He expressed satisfaction with the achievements of the result-based ACE project in the country, as centres of excellence in Nigeria and the region achieved, to a large extent, the Disbursement Linked Results (DLRs), which measures the performance of the ACEs in the achievement of results against set targets. “I am also impressed with the reports that the ACE Project has encouraged internationalisation of higher education in Africa, with the enrolment of regional students in the various centres of excellence.”

“It is gratifying to note that the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the NUC, allowed all Nigerian universities, irrespective of proprietorship, to participate in the ACE Project, since they all supply human resources to the same labour market. This goes to show that excellence is our priority. The reports we are getting justifies that decision, as all the centres in public and private universities have given very good accounts of themselves.”

While commending the Africa Centre of Excellence in Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) at the Redeemer’s University for its major role in the containment of the spread of the Ebola Virus in Nigeria in 2014, Nwajiuba said, “I am drawing attention to this case because we are again confronted with another killer virus, the Coronavirus and I am confident that ACEGID is equal to the task and would rise up to the occasion. That is what the ACE Project is all about, addressing common regional challenges and strengthening institutional capacities to deliver high quality training and applied research.”

He announced that the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the ACE experience, is revolutionising higher education in terms of research and postgraduate training. “The government is therefore positioned to adopt the result-based approach of the ACE Project. I would also like to inform you of the government’s intention to adopt the Disbursement Linked Indicator (DLI) method of the ACE Project to reward excellence in the Nigerian University System (NUS).

“The federal government, through the Ministry of Education will continue to work hard to ensure the sustainability of the Project beyond its initial life cycle. Working together, along with the various funding agencies, such as the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF), and others, we hope to be strategic in our collaboration to sustain this project in a way that would ensure a reduction in duplication of efforts in terms of project implementation. Therefore, I urge that you continue to collaborate with one another as well as fashion out other ways of sustaining this laudable project beyond the World Bank intervention.”

He also pledged the full support of the Federal Ministry of Education in ensuring that the institutions hosting the ACE Impact project build on the successes of ACE I.
At the end of four days of intensive trainings, with series of sessions to address each centre’s concerns, some of the participants on ACE Impact, who spoke with THISDAY, said the workshop provided them with some answers, just as they gained experiences from their counterparts on ACE I.

The Centre Leader, Africa Centre of Excellence for the Prevention and Control of Transmissible Diseases (ACE PCMT) at the Gamal Abdel Nasser University of Conakry, Guinea, Prof. Alexandre Delamou said his country was not involved in ACE I, but he has learnt a lot about ACE I and he is sure that the achievements made by ACE I centres convinced his country to join the network and there are two universities from his country, one on transmissible diseases and the other on mining on the ACE Impact programme.

Asked how his centre will contribute to the development of his country and Africa, he said: “If you recall, the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak started in Guinea West Africa and spread to many other African countries and it was the worst epidemic ever. So our centre is positioning as an emerging centre on the prevention and control of transmissible diseases, which means we want to develop training and research capacities expertise that can be useful for our country and also for West Africa in general.

He said the workshop was helpful, “as a new centre, we have been able to meet other centres and learn from their experiences and also looked at the challenges they have faced and how they overcame them and to bring those lessons to help us to quickly implement our centre.

“We have also participated in training sessions and our staff have gained a lot of experience. We have also been able to set up network of ACE centres. I have taken part in the creation of the West Africa Network of Africn Centres of Excellence in Infectious Diseases (WANIDA). So this will help us to better collaborate and support each other in West Africa and Africa and reinforce the scientific collaboration between Africans.”

Also, the Centre Leader, Africa Centre of Excellence in Future Energies and Electrochemical Systems at FUTO, Owerri, Prof. Emeka Oguzie said the centre was established to help solve the poor energy coverage in Africa and insufficient manpower in energy-related fields and sciences. He said the centre was set up to train a new generation of Nigerians and Africans that will explore and exploit our renewable energy sources. And we don’t want a repeat of the scenario where we had to bring foreigners to develop our oil and gas sector.

He said the centre has introduced four new Masters and PhD courses in Future Energies, Corrosion Technology, Nanotechnology and Electrochemical Technology.
On how the conference will benefit him, he said he is now certain that the funds disbursement is nearer, adding that the five ACE Impact centres on energy formed a network to enable them share ideas, students and resources.

Also, the Centre Leader, Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Power and Energy Development (ACESPED) at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Prof. Emenike Ejiogu, said the centre already has some industrial partners and is developing electronic power systems, solar systems and other types of systems; development of electricity from waste to energy. also development of method for conservation of energy.

“We are working together with other energy related centres in West Africa to solve the problem of energy and power in Nigeria and Africa.”
With the workshop, he said members of his team are now well equipped and will go back strong and ready to implement the programme.

Speaking at the closing ceremony, a representative of the World Bank, who congratulated all the participants and all those who contributed to the success of the workshop, said higher education is so important to the World Bank in Africa because high quality higher education is the critical foundation for human capital development and that without quality higher education, there won’t be good quality primary and secondary education.

“Also, we are increasingly recognising the role of higher education in providing the input into the increasingly technological economy which needs, particularly in Africa, expertise in STEM. It is also obvious that we need to get into the fourth industrial revolution. We also know that the long-term solution to better higher education has got to be the sustainable transformation of the university systems.

“The world Bank can only provide support for a fixed period of time so we hope that what we are doing with these two programmes is allowing real changes in the capacity of the higher education systems that we are supporting. We are confident that the activities, outcomes and impact of the ACE Project will endure beyond the closing of the projects. It is only through building these high quality institutions that Africa will have the necessary capacity and knowledge in applied research and this will be the true mark of building the needed skills and knowledge in Africa leading to high economic growth, productivity and greater human capital.”

In his closing remarks, the NUC executive secretary urged the participants to remember all they discussed at the workshop and begin to strategise for the full take off of ACE Impact.
“With all the DLI of ACE I achieved, we need to sustain the momentum in ACE Impact. We have over the years, experienced the benefits of working together; there is need for more collaboration among the ACE between institutions and with the industry at the national and international level.

On health, Prof. Rasheed said the health ACEs have proven their worth, adding that the challenges are ever increasing, especially now that the coronavirus is threatening the world.
On agriculture, he stressed the need to pay attention to food security and food safety and more scientific approach to farming.

“On STEM, we need to focus more on renewable or alternative energy, ICT, environment pollution especially in Nigeria, and other issues. In education, we need to focus more on pedagogy and on the changing roles of teachers and students. If the teachers are not ready to play the role of facilitator and read ahead of students, they are going to be shamed before students.”
He expressed hope that ACE Impact will be different and far better than ACE I.