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Centers of Excellence in Africa: Time to inculcate entrepreneurship for future jobs

There is no dearth of issue-specific centers of excellence (CoEs) in West, Central, and East Africa. However, what is lacking is - CoEs which could solve the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution with a transdisciplinary approach. These CoEs have made an edge in producing good employees but now the time has come they start shaping employers in the areas of future jobs. 

Devdiscourse News DeskDevdiscourse News Desk | Updated: 08-03-2020 20:10 IST | Created: 04-03-2020 16:05 IST
Centers of Excellence in Africa: Time to inculcate entrepreneurship for future jobs
Representative image Image Credit: Flickr

In this age of technology-driven innovations, artificial intelligence is fast replacing humans. It's not only the manual work, but the new trends in artificial intelligence are also fast replacing complex cognitive tasks and highly trained white-collar-jobs. Though coming in stages, this replacement is the fastest and largest ever in the history of industrialization.

According to a recent report of the University of Oxford, the automation industry may replace about 65 percent of jobs in Nigeria, 67 percent in South Africa and 85 percent in Ethiopia. The impact of machine learning and artificial intelligence is not limited to any particular domain or sector but is all-inclusive. The World Economic Forum in a report titled the Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa 2017 had predicted that by 2030; about 41 percent of jobs of South Africa, 46 percent in Nigeria and 52 percent of Kenya are susceptible to automation. However, there is a silver lining to the Fourth Industrial Revolution – it will generate new kinds of jobs. This has ignited research for future job opportunities and skills required to grab them. Here comes the challenge before academic institutions to revise their strategy to match the drastically changing technological innovations and quest for new areas of entrepreneurship. There have been some integrated and coordinated efforts to set up and operationalize a series of CoEs in Western, Central, Eastern and Southern African countries to match the challenges of the jobs market in this drastically changing scenario.

Africa Centers of Excellence (ACE) Project

ACE project was launched by the World Bank in 2014 in collaboration with the participating countries. The first phase of the project - ACE I - was completed in 2019 while ACE II and ACE Impact are operational.


Under the first phase (ACE I), 22 institutions were selected from nine Western and Central Africa countries. They received funding from the World Bank for augmenting and enhancing their research capabilities, specializations, training and to meet the demands for skills required for Africa's development such as extractive industries.

These institutions were also endowed with a robust academia-industry relationship to ensure knowledge partnership with the private sector for industry-oriented curriculum and research and commercialization of institutional expertise through consultancies. The 22 CoEs were focussed on three thematic areas – Agriculture (Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo), Health (Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal), and STEM (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Cote d'Ivoire). Though the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is a separate category in the STEM CoEs are not the islands. They were mandated to work in an integrated and holistic way to mentor young people for critical knowledge and skills so that they could develop problem-solving capabilities. Besides, they were also mandated to enter into a partnership with other aspiring institutions of the region for knowledge dissemination, technology transfer, curriculum sharing, and training, etc. The World Bank had allocated about $8million for each CoE. This amount was provided as a loan to the partner countries with the Association of African Universities (AAU) as the nodal agency. Concluded in 2019, this was the first World Bank project aimed at the capacity building of higher education institutions in Africa.


Based on the lessons learned from ACE I, the second phase (ACE II) is basically an extension of the project in Eastern and Southern Africa. In this phase, 24 existing institutions of international standards were identified for financial support and mentoring. They are working in the five regional priority areas – industry, health, education, and applied statistics. Besides the objectives of ACE, I, these institutes also have a mandate to develop a culture of results-orientation and accountability through an exemplary performance-based financing mechanism. Presently, about 17 CoEs are operational. These CoEs are primarily transdisciplinary in nature with an orientation towards the need for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Their domain areas includeData Sciences, Internet of Things (IoT), Energy for Sustainable Development, Public Health and Herbal Medicine, Water Management, Sustainable Agriculture, and Sustainability, etc. The host countries of ACE II CoEs are – Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Malawi.

ACE Impact

Launched in 2018, ACE Impact is an improved version to support and mentor higher education institutions in Africa for capacity building and enhancing their training capabilities. Jointly funded by the World Bank and the French Development Agency (AFD), the project includes 43 CoEs (18 from ACE I and 25 new institutions), five emerging centers, one 'top-up' center in risk management and five colleges and schools of engineering. With a total budget of $250-$350 million, the CoEs is to be provided funding for about 4-5 years. These CoEs are being set up in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, CDI, Guinea, and Niger. The CoEs operating under ACE Impact have been mandated to fulfill the three primary objectives; increase enrolment of students, enhance the quality of post-graduate programs and improve development impact such that the knowledge and skills acquired by graduates are closely linked to developmental challenges. Besides, they will be required to prioritize in three broad areas –

  1. focussing on their respective thematic sectors,
  2. the scope within each of the pre-identified thematic sectors that apply to the Current skills gap within this area in West & Central Africa; and Applied research needs for industry.
  3. National and international partnerships.

The structural and operational strategy of these CoEs were designed to suit the higher-order objective - to meet the labor market demands for skills within specific areas where there are skill shortages affecting development, economic growth and poverty reduction.

The Way Ahead

Besides providing training and mentoring for research students, the CoEs under ACE I have collectively forged 87 partnerships with aspiring institutions and industries thereby generating $8.9 million in revenue. These institutes have produced 1600 Ph.D. scholars, 6500 MS, and provided training to 16,000 mid-career employees/ professionals.

However, a review of the ACE projects has raised some serious concerns which need to be bridged. These concerns could be addressed by adopting appropriate structural and operational strategies for targeted research in response to development challenges, enhancing sectoral engagement, increasing strategic/ functional regional and international partnerships, strengthened institutional-level impact, improving student support and welfare, increasing enrolment and better retention of women. Besides, CoEs need to develop a strategy to stop the brain drain and retain talented students in Africa and bridge the skill gap required for the industry. Besides, the CoEs should also develop a non-discriminatory, research-oriented and performance-based recruitment mechanism so that the talented PhDs join them as faculty. The World Bank has also expressed concerns on only 30 percent of faculty holding PhDs in CoEs. This problem could be addressed by facilitating the parallel entry of talented and research-oriented Ph.D. holders in the CoEs to increase the quality of the faculty.

Furthermore, the CoEs should also focus on inculcating entrepreneurship culture among their pupils so that they could become job providers not merely the job seekers.

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