AfricaLics (Part 1): South-North partnerships through the lens of AfricaLics

This is the first of two articles about the organisation Africa Lics (an acronym for African Network for Economics of Learning, Innovation, and Competence Building Systems), which is part of the larger network Globelics. Founded in 2012, the AfricaLics aims to connect scholars, researchers and policy analysts in innovation and development studies in Africa.

To learn more about the organisation, I spoke to member of the AfricaLics secretariat and Academic Coordinator of the AfricaLics Visiting Fellowship Programme (VFP), Dr Margrethe Holm Andersen. Margrethe holds a Master in Public Administration and a PhD in Social Science. Prior to joining AfricaLics, she had been working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for about fifteen years.

The focus of AfricaLics (and Globelics) is on research in how innovation takes place and in innovation systems rather than on inventions and their commercialisation. Margrethe makes the point that “there’s a big difference between research on innovation and innovation processes, and research in innovation. And it’s the first part of it that AfricaLics is striving to promote. Why? The reason really is that an invention is not an innovation until it gets used…. that’s what makes and breaks it for a society,” she says. “You can have good researchers that develop fine ideas, but if you don’t get the ideas into use, you’re not going to solve your society’s problems. So that’s where the research on innovation and innovative processes is really important.” Researchers in the network provide evidence that (a) helps inventors and innovators ensure that their new or improved products, processes or ways of working are inclusive (i.e. benefit and reach those that need them most), and (b) supports the development of enabling environments within the innovating firm or organisation and/or the wider policy, regulatory or market settings.

In 2013, Margrethe joined the Globelics secretariat “with the specific focus on helping to establish AfricaLics” alongside the AfricaLics Secretary General Anna Kingiri, Innovation Specialist Rebecca Hanlin, and Bitrina Diyamett, who was the first Chair of the AfricaLics Scientific Board. Anna and Bitrina had worked together with Bengt-Aake Lundvall and Rasmus Lema from Aalborg University in putting together a funding proposal to the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to help support the development of AfricaLics. When Sida granted the funds, Margrethe and fellow secretariat member Rebecca Hanlin were recruited to help establish the regional network. Margrethe tells me that “the focus on learning, innovation and competence building systems really complements what I had been doing.”

Developing AfricaLics procedures and ways of doing things was initially helped by the fact that “Globelics had many established practices, for example PhD academies and Globelics conferences…” Margrethe tells me. However, various components of AfricaLics are unique to the regional network. This includes primarily the Visiting Fellowship Programme (or VFP as it is known), but also other features such as the development of an academic coursework module on Innovation and Development aimed at Master students at African universities, as well as a training course on this module targeting a range of lecturers. “The synergy between the academy, conferences, and VFP, and the new mentoring programme we are trying to set up is really crucial for the research capacity building model that we have developed with time” Margrethe says.

The AfricaLics PhD VFP allows PhD students in innovation and development studies to attend a semester (five months) at the Department of Political Science at Aalborg University. The idea is that the scholars work on their research while at Aalborg University, and receive academic support. Since its inception, AfricaLics has hosted 18 visiting Fellows, and at the end of this phase, the organisation will have hosted a further 7 Fellows, making it 25 in total. Margrethe tells me that the PhD VFP “helps build the community enormously, because [the Fellows] get a deeper interaction with peers and Innovation and Development scholars”. During the five month stay, the Fellows’ supervisors get a chance to visit their students in Denmark, which Margrethe says is “a necessary part of the programme and something that makes it a bit different”.

In addition to the academic support, the Visiting Fellows receive support from a ‘buddy’ who helps with any non-academic questions they might have. In the past years, the groups have taken trips around Denmark, and even to Sweden and Norway. “The group aspect is crucial. If the group mentality is there and they support each other, the students get wonderful experiences and may establish long-lasting professional and personal links to each other and to the AfricaLics network”.

The impact of AfricaLics has extended beyond just the members and their research. Some universities in Africa have, as a result, implemented new Master’s courses on innovation and development studies. Margrethe mentions that “at [The University of Witwatersrand in South Africa], they already were running a programme mirroring the MIKE programme at Aalborg University, which is on innovation, knowledge development and economics”. Today, courses have also been established in Kenya, and in Dar es Salaam. Another larger impact is the establishment of NigeraLics, which is hosted by Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria and promotes collaboration and interaction between scholars and students with an interest in Innovation and Development from different universities in Nigeria.

I asked Margrethe if she could think of any specific benefits of South-North partnerships and capacity building, both for the South and the North. From a Southern perspective, and for the Visiting Fellows, she highlights that “the exposure, and the exchange of ideas” as well as the opportunity to start “challenging the way things are done at African universities” are two key things that come out of the VFP.

But there are also benefits for Denmark, and for the North. “Interaction with scholars is really something that gives you food for thought because you get to see something from a different perspective,” Margrethe says. “To me that has always been a good thing about being in interactions with researchers and people from different parts of the world, because it makes you think; it provokes you to see things from a different perspective and may also challenge the way you conceptualise things.” One of these new perspectives is that “you start valuing the informal relations and the informal sector issues much more”. Another point she draws out is that these collaborative partnerships can and do lead to world-changing innovation, like mobile money, which came out of Kenya (and was developed in collaboration with partners from the UK). The third and final key point Margrethe mentions is “the provisional networks and access to collaborative partners”.

AfricaLics is nearing the end of its second phase of support from the research department under Sida, and in the future aims to start “localising the research capacity building model so that it is increasingly fosters student exchange between African hubs.” This does not prohibit collaboration with universities outside Africa, and there are plans to try to involve more universities in the programme (for example from Sweden). In any case, future plans for the network include “making sure there’s sustainability around the network… the institutionalisation of the network is a big thing and not concluded yet”. Margrethe adds that the seventeen academic scholars – most of whom are from African countries – who form the AfricaLics Scientific Board in collaboration with alumni from the PhD academies and the VFP will be key actors in taking the network forward.

Megan Roux is a Master student of Sustainable Biotechnology, Aalborg University Copenhagen.