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Developing African-European joint collaboration for Science and Technology

Periodic Report Summary 3 - ERAFRICA (Developing African-European joint collaboration for Science and Technology)

Project Context and Objectives:
ERAFRICA is a geographic ERA-Net project funded by the European Commission as part of its 7th Framework Programme aimed at the promotion and advancement of European collaborative scientific and technological research. The aim of a geographic ERA-Net (European Research Area Network) is primarily the consolidation of European research cooperation with a specific non-European country or area, thus to effectuate a coordination of efforts and a pooling of resources that can serve as a more efficient and cost-effective alternative to a range of independent bi-lateral arrangements between individual parties. Already a number of such ERA-Nets operate in relation to areas as diverse as Russia (Era.Net RUS), India (New INDIGO) and the Far East (KORA-Net), and it is within this context that ERAFRICA was created to serve the same function with regards to the African continent.

Practically, ERAFRICA boasts the following core objectives:

• Establish a long-term framework for communication, collaboration and coordination of programme owners and managers from Europe and Africa, related to scientific and technological co-operation;
• Reinforce European Union-Africa science and technology collaboration by promoting joint learning by African and European research programme owners and managers and identifying relevant instruments to address more effectively the global challenges of sustainable development;
• Develop joint funding schemes and procedures between European and African programme owners aiming at supporting joint activities;
• Strengthen African research capacities and improve the impact of research for development in Africa. Strengthening the impact and the influence of scientific and technological research implies enhancing the transfer of new knowledge to the benefit of society, and the achievement of greater coherence between research outputs, policies and funding instruments in areas other than research.

Uniting seven European Union (EU) countries (Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain), two EU associated countries (Switzerland, Turkey) and three African countries (Egypt, Kenya, South Africa) as its starting project consortium, ERAFRICA pursues the realisation of its objectives via a structure consisting of five work packages. Simultaneously, the project operates according to a succession of three main phases, the first relating to the mapping of existing science and technology research relations between Europe and Africa (Work Package 1) and the identification of appropriate funding themes and instruments to be established within the framework of ERAFRICA (Work Package 3). The second phase concerns the refinement of the selected themes and instruments and the creation of an administrative framework allowing for the eventual joint funding of research projects and related activities under the ERAFRICA banner (Work Package 4), while the third phase encompasses the solicitation, evaluation, selection and funding of projects accordingly. Efforts at publicising the project and recruiting new participants (Work Package 2) as well as the overall management of the project (Work Package 5) are cross-cutting, continuous tasks.

Formally launched at a kick-off meeting in Pretoria, South Africa in January 2011, ERAFRICA initially focused heavily on the work related to Work Package 1, being the mapping of existing relations in scientific and technological research between Europe and Africa, both in general terms and, specifically, as relating to the consortium partners. This was required partly in order to avoid duplication of existing projects and programmes in the eventual definition of an ERAFRICA research funding scheme, and partly in order to identify possible gaps in existing collaborative efforts which could be addressed under the banner of a European-African ERA-Net. The bulk of this labour was carried out by the partners representing Finland, Turkey and Belgium, albeit with valuable input from a number of other consortium members. At the same time, a concerted effort was underway aimed at promoting ERAFRICA within the international science and technology research community, as well as arousing the interest of possible additional funding parties. This was required since the funding provided by the European Commission only served to cover the start-up costs of the project, but not the funding of research itself, which monies would have to be raised from the consortium members and other sources independently. Leading efforts in this regard were the Kenyan and South African partners, hosting an African and European briefing session in Mombasa, Kenya and Brussels, Belgium respectively, while the German partners created and maintained the ERAFRICA website and the Austrian partners produced a number of project newsletters. The results of this and other activities carried out by individual partners on a national level ultimately resulted in four additional countries, two from Africa and two from Europe, pledging their participation in the project by the time of publication of an ERAFRICA call for research proposals in January 2013.

Concerning the call for proposals, as per objective number three above, this was always the direction in which the project was heading, with most of the preparatory work centred on defining funding themes and instruments, discussions in this regard obviously drawing heavily on the mapping exercise carried out as part of Work Package 1 and completed towards the end of 2011. Added to this was also input from the ERAFRICA Scientific Advisory Council, a body of pre-eminent researchers and scientific authorities assembled under the direction of the Swiss partner in order to provide guidance concerning the overall direction taken by the project as well as on thematic and operational concerns. Combining the data and intelligence obtained from these two sources, the project consortium was able, at a meeting in Lisbon, Portugal in November 2011, finally to define three research themes which would feature as part of an ERAFRICA call for proposals, namely:

• Renewable energy, chosen for relevance to both Europe and Africa as well as representing the national and institutional priorities of most of the potential funding parties;
• Interfaces between two or more global challenges, chosen on direct recommendation by the Scientific Advisory Council as speaking to an important emerging trend in international research;
• Idea-driven research, not limited to any disciplines but necessarily innovative in nature, chosen for addressing a gap in the broad field of research funding, particularly in Africa, where such an open topic is rarely encountered.

In addition, three funding instruments were identified, all three applicable to each theme as per the desires of the eventual funding applicants. The instruments are:

• Collaborative research projects, focusing on research proceeding from a pure initiation stage up to publication or patent registration;
• Research for innovation, aimed at commercialisation of products and operating in the space between patenting and market introduction;
• Institutional capacity building, to fund training programmes and the like within the framework of an institutional structure or curriculum.

Both the themes and the instruments were finally confirmed at a follow-up meeting held in Alexandria, Egypt in January 2012, thus allowing for the project to pass into its second phase, namely the practical and administrative preparations to be made for publishing a formal ERAFRICA call for proposals and to proceed from there with the reception, evaluation and selection of submitted proposals. According to an internal consortium calendar drawn up in the wake of the Lisbon meeting, this publication occurred in January 2013, while also at the Alexandria meeting a number of informal (that is, non-binding) expressions of possible funding amounts were recorded, ultimately confirmed and expanded upon by January 2013.

The amount of funding pledged considerably exceeded initial expectations, indicating a much more expanded implementation than originally planned. The realisation of this change in project scope occurred at the Lisbon meeting, where the first mention of funding levels was made and where it soon became clear that the African partners wished to imbue ERAFRICA with a significance far exceeding that imagined by some of their European counterparts. Whereas the latter in some instances viewed the project as a pilot endeavour meant to test the waters of multilateral collaboration between Europe and Africa, the trio of Egypt, Kenya and South Africa wanted the research to be funded under the banner of ERAFRICA to have genuine social or socio-economic impact. This was perfectly aligned with the vision held by the project coordinator, who from the very beginning had expressed similar sentiments, and the fact that all three African countries were speaking in financial terms far above those expressed by the Europeans obliged a rapid reassessment of what exactly ERAFRICA would ultimately be. At the same time the strong African commitment also emphasised a central feature of the partnership, already noted at the outset, namely that this would not be a traditional donor-recipient relationship between Europe and Africa but a true and equal collaboration, in which every party would have an equal voice and equal authority. In this regard, while ERAFRICA is at heart still a project aimed at the unification of European research collaboration with Africa, it is also making good on promises originally made at the project start, namely that it would serve to redefine the nature of Europe-Africa interaction and thus lay the foundation for an entirely new type of truly equal cooperative venture, one which could easily be reproduced in other domains as well.

Having thus reimagined the project at a larger scale and selected the themes and instruments for the funding of actual research, the next step in ERAFRICA operations was the administrative and procedural preparations to be made for the eventual publication of the call for proposals. To this end the work of creating appropriate terms of reference was taken up by the Egyptian and German partners, with final drafts completed and approved following crucial project meetings in Helsinki, Finland in June 2012 and Bonn, Germany in September 2012. At these meetings too the funding themes were formulated into their ultimate expression based on input by scientific experts and informed by the national priorities of the funding parties, all the while keeping in mind the overarching imperative to ensure real-world impact as a result of all monies spent. The exact criteria for assuring such impact thus make up part of the terms of reference, as do those for the establishment of a Common Call Management centre to coordinate the project evaluation and selection. Final signature of the terms of reference occurred in December 2012, with the call publication following in January 2013 and the funding of individual projects starting in 2014 after the conclusion of national contracts between the funders and the selected research teams. Ultimately 17 projects were funded for a total amount of €8.29 million involving 65 institutions from 18 countries, the success of the collaboration inspiring the funding parties to follow the termination of the European Commission’s grant agreement to a self-financed continuation beginning in 2015.

Project Results:
Work Package 1 (Information review and analysis of science and technology cooperation programmes in Europe and Africa): Although Work Package 1 suffered from a number of delays and underwent some restructuring in order to conform to the exigencies of practical necessity, in terms of primary project objectives it did achieve exactly what was intended, namely the provision of background information upon which the ERAFRICA consortium was able to draw to help it define the nature and scope of its eventual operationalization. Based on the work done during this phase of the project, a set of funding themes and instruments could be selected and aligned with the national and institutional priorities of the funding parties, while at the same time allowing for the recruiting of new participants to ERAFRICA, something which is always easier to do once a project has achieved some concrete definition. Despite necessary deviations from the format envisioned in the Description of Work therefore, there is no question that Work Package 1 has been a complete success, and stands to the credit of all those having contributed to its realisation. In addition, no significant changes were required as far as either projected labour or expenditure was concerned, with adaptations of the task calendar and description well-balanced out by the merging of events shifting the responsibility for subsequent tasks to partners having already been allocated the necessary financial resources for this purpose.

Work Package 2 (Communication and dissemination activities, including mobilisation of other funders, exchange of information and consultation with stakeholders and experts, to support ERAFRICA implementation): Ultimately Work Package 2 represents the conflict existing between the ERAFRICA Description of Work as an academic ideal and the compromises required by everyday reality in order to achieve desired progress. Thus in the course of implementing this Work Package a number of tasks had to be combined in order to achieve stated objectives, others had to be scaled down in order to avoid a negative representation of the project within the international research funding community, while still others had to be rearranged with regards to the original calendar so as to allow work from one to influence the other in a more positive way. Yet despite these necessary adjustments, it is clear that all objectives were ultimately achieved: ERAFRICA was indeed publicised widely in Africa and Europe, with a number of additional participants ultimately indicating their interest in investing in the funding of research projects under the ERAFRICA banner. In addition, input was sought from a wide range of stakeholders and incorporated into the project strategy as it worked towards defining its implementation in concrete terms, while the constant interaction between members of the ERAFRICA consortium has ensured the creation of an institutional network that will no doubt lead to many future collaborative ventures even outside the current framework. In this way the first three of the project’s overall objectives were achieved, with the fourth to follow as ERAFRICA approached the launching of its call in 2013.

Work Package 3 (Definition of a coordinated strategy for joint activities): As indicated earlier, once the stage was reached where partners could indicate the extent of their possible financial investment in projects funded under the banner of ERAFRICA, it soon became clear that the project was set to operate at a much higher level than originally conceived. Needless to say, this is a very good thing, but it does mean that a greater level of complexity and care would accompany any and all negotiations related to the funding terms and processes, necessitating more time for realisation. Within this framework, Work Package 3 proceeded as effectively as it could, and was able to achieve call publication in early 2013, only now with research projects financed at a much higher level. In this regard then, despite the necessary delays, this work package can be said to have exceeded expectations in terms of its conceptualisation of eventual project funding, drawing effectively from work done in both Work Packages 1 and 2 in order to define the research themes to be funded and to recruit new members to the Groups of Funding Parties forming around each of the activities. Owing to the operations of Work Package 3 therefore, ERAFRICA is set to make a big impression with regards to its research funding, not only redefining the way Africa and Europe collaborates in science and technology, but also making a palpable impact on both continents.

Work Package 4 (Implementation and Evaluation of Joint Activities): While the launching and administration of the ERAFRICA call took somewhat longer than anticipated, there is no doubt that it was a resounding success. Despite the extraordinary complications of having to coordinate the internal processes and accommodate the national regulations of so many funding parties, each operating within the constraints of its own budget, the ERAFRICA consortium and its partners were still able to fund 17 projects of far more significant scale than envisioned at the outset, each sporting the participation of at least two African and two European research teams or institutions. As a result, not only had a meaningful professional network been created at project administration level but also between researchers from the two continents as well, while such learning and capacity building as had taken place within the ERAFRICA consortium would also be mirrored by similar gains at project level. Having thus fully fulfilled the aims of the ERAFRICA project in terms of networking, strengthening bi-regional collaboration, funding joint activities and building capacity, in the process a new model for Africa-Europe cooperation was created – one that emphasised equal participation and ownership, joint creation and sign-off at every stage of the collaboration and sustainability for further exploitation and advantage in the future.

Work Package 5 (Management): It is clear that the ERAFRICA project, despite challenges and delays, has been very successful in accomplishing both its primary objectives and the execution of the tasks set out as part of its implementation. Equally gratifying is that there have been no substantial changes made to the consortium, nor has any serious conflicts arisen requiring either internal or external mediation. Thus, while it has not been possible to maintain absolute conformity to the Description of Work, ERAFRICA can nevertheless be seen as a model for the management and operation of a successful ERA-Net. As far as changes to the projected operation of the project itself is concerned, it should be noted that due to delays caused by notably the growth in project scope and the complexity of mounting and carrying out the evaluation and selection process it ultimately proved impossible to conclude all the planned activities within the three years originally envisioned as project duration. As a result a request for an amendment of the Grant Agreement was submitted to the European Commission in early 2013, to the effect that the duration should be expended by one year. This request was granted, with the new date for ERAFRICA termination set at 30 November 2014.
Potential Impact:
In November 2014 the ERAFRICA consortium marked the successful conclusion of the European Commission-funded initialisation phase of their Europe-Africa collaboration in science, technology and innovation (STI). After almost four years of forging an equal intercontinental partnership, setting up instruments, regulations and procedures for the joint funding of collaborative research projects and designating funding themes based on shared national and institutional priorities, a rigorous process of solicitation, evaluation and selection resulted in the joint funding of 17 projects for three years and a total of more than 8 million euros. With this achievement the phase of ERAFRICA financed under, and regulated by, the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme for STI comes to an end…but for the ERAFRICA partner countries, this is only the beginning.
As a result of lessons learned and results achieved, and bolstered by a shared resolve not to let the unique partnership forged over the past four years fail to reach its full potential, the ERAFRICA funding parties have unanimously endorsed the shared pursuit of a second phase of the project’s hitherto-successful operation. And while the exact nature of such a continuation remains to be determined, the majority of the existing partners have expressed their in-principle commitment to the launching of a second call for research proposals and the joint funding of a second round of collaborative STI projects between European and African research teams. In addition the ERAFRICA partner institutions have committed themselves to the recruitment of even more countries and funding agencies to the current group of funding parties via a dedicated marketing and publicity drive to follow. Far from an ending therefore, the conclusion of the first phase of ERAFRICA will serve as springboard towards an even bigger and brighter future.
From the start ERAFRICA was designed to be a new kind of collaboration, a transnational partnership between Europe and Africa based on equal input from both sides and in terms of design, management and financing alike. Aimed at replacing previous donor-recipient models of development funding by putting all participants on an equal footing, ERAFRICA’s success thus far has proven the concept imminently workable and ready to be applied to a greatly expanded participation. In addition the project has provided a model and example for others in its field (and even in other domains entirely) of the modes, possibilities and benefits of equal partnership from start to finish. On an intercontinental level it has demonstrated the readiness and capacity of African countries to engage as equals with their European counterparts in large-scale projects at significant levels of funding, while simultaneously creating invaluable regional networks that can be exploited for other purposes as well. And while the results of the funded activities will only be available for assessment later on, within an administrative framework there has been a tremendous amount of capacity-building and experience gained regarding the operation of international multilateral collaboration, experience which can equally be extended to increased participation in other endeavours of the same kind. Finally, the success of ERAFRICA and its continued resonance within the global STI community may well prompt greater national investment in science and technology collaboration on the part of notably the African governments, while simultaneously emboldening European countries to invest more time, effort and resources into Europe-Africa cooperation.

List of Websites:
www.erafrica.eu