Innovation, Renewable Energy, New Ideas…and a highly significant investment from African countries

In anticipation of the important discussions that are expected to take place in Alexandria, the Programme Owners of ERAfrica have articulated their preferences for preliminary direction of future calls in a series of working papers. These will serve as starting point for discussions in Alexandria.
Lisbon, 26 November. ERAfrica is a network of programme owners and managers, i.e. funders of scientific and technological collaborative activities, from Africa and Europe, created at the end of 2010 and supported by the European Commission. It aims at coordinating international support for S&T to enhance ultilateral collaborative research and capacity building activities between the two continents.

Most grand challenges and societal questions are increasingly shared across countries and across regions. Food security for a growing world population, water scarcity, climate change and sustainable energy security are examples of challenges that are simultaneously affecting many regions of the world and which, therefore, would be better addressed collectively rather than through ilateral cooperation, i.e. through a series of often small projects, each involving no more than two countries.

To this end, ERAfrica’s founding group of 12 African and European countries1 met in Lisbon last week to review the different pieces of the collaborative puzzle they have been gathering and analysing over the course of 2011. From strategy documents produced by the African Union to discussions with representatives of dozens of countries in Africa and Europe, including responses to questionnaires on national needs and interests and in constant consideration of the monies they could raise in order to support joint research and development activities, they ended up with a draft list of funding themes to be submitted and discussed at an open meeting of international programme owners to be held next January in Alexandria (Egypt), the expectation being that a number of other funders will join them to support collective activities within the identified fields. It is foreseen that these additional funding agencies will not only represent many more countries from Africa, a number of which have already expressed interest in this regard, but also from the public and private sectors of other European countries as well.

Concerning the selection of the themes to be funded, the decision‐making process yielded a number of interesting surprises, the first in response to an initial survey regarding the possible investment to be made by each ERAfrica partner country. In response, it was the three African partners (Egypt, Kenya and South Africa) that immediately announced the most significant figures, provided that the chosen activities responded to their real needs. Mostly driven by this African commitment, the idea to support only large projects was then put on the table, discussed and approved, referring to individual grants in the 500,000€ to 900,000€ range, to be funded for two to three years and with a minimum of three countries participating in each project. This will allow for real impact and the delivery of concrete results, while the condition that only projects featuring both African and European researchers will be funded should serve to strengthen collaboration between the two continents in a genuine and meaningful way. The initial estimation by the ERAfrica consortium is that the irst call for activity proposals, to be launched by the end of 2012, should result in the funding of between 5 and 10 projects.

When discussions next moved to the nature of the scientific instruments to be supported, the partners rapidly agreed that the whole spectrum of research should be covered, from very basic to very applied, from outputs being limited to publications and/or patents to full‐fledged innovation and knowledge used for the creation of products and services with an impact on economic development. They also agreed to the additional funding of select institutional capacity building initiatives.

Coming to the exact themes and topics to be supported, the consortium decided to leave the list as open‐ended as possible to allow for a maximum range of creativity, yet sufficiently defined to guide researchers in the submission of their applications, and investors in the focused placement of their funding. In this regard, funded activities will need to fall into one of three following categories:

  • Projects on renewable energy, because this is a priority for the African Union and also emerged as such at an African consultation meeting held in June and attended by 17 countries from across the continent;
  • Projects focusing on the interface between challenges such as agriculture, health, ICT, water and energy, selected because each constitutes a challenge in its own right, yet solving problems related to each most likely lies at the interface between scientific domains rather than through the application of a single body of knowledge; it was also selected as theme because interfaces are very favourable sources of innovation and global impact, and finally because a multidisciplinary approach was strongly recommended as theme by the ERAfrica Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC)2;
  • Projects promoting new ideas because, as was suggested by a number of African and European interested parties, many projects with great innovation potential do not fit into a standard thematic call for research proposals, and also because no “open call” (sometimes also called “blank call”) with the theme of simply “supporting the best ideas” has ever been relation to collaboration with Africa.

In summation, ERAfrica’s members, knowing themselves far from having access to the kind of funding that can be boasted by a World Bank or a Gates Foundation, focused their attention on what their coordinated actions could do to add value to existing Africa‐Europe collaboration in S&T for development. In this regard it is the real co‐ownership between Africa and Europe, as well as all the other “co”‐aspects (such as co‐design, co‐governance, co‐conduct and co‐evaluation) that go along with it which serve as the strongest guarantee that the research supported by ERAfrica will respond to real needs and have a sustainable impact on economic development on both continents and on the funders, who will hopefully be able to continue working together in a oordinated way long after the initial European Commission support for their collaboration has come to an end.

1 Austria, Belgium, Germany, Egypt, Finland, France, Kenya, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey.
2The SAC is an advisory body composed of 8 renowned scientists and development experts, four from Africa and four from Europe, tasked with providing the consortium with scientific guidance.


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