By Aziza Modise with support from Natalie Tannous 

This blog post is part of a ten-part series on the history and development of the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) that draws on two research projects from 2020. These research projects focused on capturing ACE’s stakeholders’ perceptions and experiences of ACE’s contribution to evidence -informed decision-making (EIDM). Drawing on interviews among ACE staff (previous and current), members of the Africa Evidence Network (AEN), and our partners, the stories captured in this series paint a rich picture of ACE’s contribution to the African and South African EIDM space. We aim to publish a new post on the tenth of every month. View the whole series here. 

Ruth in conversation with ACE partners, strategising for what would be next?

In the previous blog post in this series, we ended on how re-investing the funding from a massive international project left Ruth and her team asking: what’s next? It’s the middle of 2016 and the team working on the University of Johannesburg-led Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (UJ-BCURE) project will end with the year. A certain challenge common among researchers everywhere starts to rear its ugly head: a whole team of researchers are soon going to be without a job. Of this time Ruth says “we told staff that we were facing a fall in funding and there was no confirmed work beyond the end of 2016, although we would be applying for more funding”.   

Where to now? 

The intention was to use the remaining funding surplus for salaries for Ruth and Christa (the centre’s administrator at the time) as well as the then-administrator of the Africa Evidence Network’s (AEN), for which the team played the role of secretariat (we will have the pleasure of looking closer at the nuts and bolts of this network in a later blog – keep reading the series). Three additional developments accompanied this new state of affairs. First, the loss of most staff members who had been working to support capacity to use evidence in decision-making was a blow for operating. Second, the host centre of Ruth and her UJ-BCURE team – the Centre for Anthropological Research (CfAR) – was to soon have a gap in directorship. Professor Thea de Wet was moving on to a different job at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). And finally and most significantly, the academic disconnect between the work of the UJ-BCURE team and the focus of its host centre CfAR (an anthropological research centre) could no longer be ignored. Indeed, Ruth found herself and her team asking what’s next?    

ACE colleagues in heated discussions at an ACE strategy meeting

Speaking of her final decision to establish a new research centre, Ruth describes how it might have been easier to decide to “hide in a corner office somewhere to do research and write articles”. But then again, Ruth isn’t known for taking it easy.

One solution seemed plausible in addressing all these challenges: form a new centre, under new directorship, and continue bidding for funding. Remembering that time, Professor de Wet comments; “The team was very well-established and could have gone on very well by themselves. I remember having a meeting with the Dean and he asked me what I thought about Carina and Ruth going on by themselves, and I supported them; that was 2016”. Speaking of her final decision to establish a new research centre, Ruth describes how it might have been easier to decide to “hide in a corner office somewhere to do research and write articles”. But then again, Ruth isn’t known for taking it easy. So, using the surplus funds from the UJ-BCURE project, Ruth applied to establish a research centre through the UJ system and waited. Just before 2016 came to an end, fortune came knocking twice for our pioneers. The first being UJ Senate’s awaited approval to establish a new centre for evidence within the Faculty of Humanities. The second time was when the team was successful in securing funding for two systematic reviews, to be led by Laurenz and Yvonne. Now three key staff from the UJ-BCURE project would stay on to work on the new reviews and moreover, they were soon able to recruit four new junior systematic reviewers. The answer for what’s next was becoming a little clearer.  

Naming something new  

These were exciting times for the team because they were no longer a group of people wondering ‘now what?’. So, in a way that was to become a defining part of who they are, this new team launched themselves into naming their new centre. Face-to-face discussions among colleagues, telephone calls and emails to friends, votes from family members and partners started flying around and with input from everyone – including the then-Dean of Humanities – a name slowly started to emerge.  

Along with the broader team, Ruth remembers “A discussion…as to whether it (the name) should be the AfricaN centre or the AfricA centre, and it was agreed that ‘Africa’ seemed more appropriate. Primarily because ACE has a desire to serve the continent’s need and not just South Africa. This is recognising that while Africa is not one homogenous region, we do have a shared identity, we face related challenges, and we know that the evidence ecosystem(s) has much to learn from one another. Plus, we have several colleagues who have backgrounds in other African countries, so ACE would have a strong pan-African identity”. So, it had to be Africa. 

The team continued banging ideas around what the then-Dean suggested, which was that the new centre’s name should include ‘research’ or ‘synthesis’. But our pioneers disagreed. Throughout this throwing around of ideas, two critical ideas for the name emerged: Africa and evidence needed to stand out. Ruth explains why not research or synthesis: “We have a very open approach to working with a range of partners across the evidence ecosystem and didn’t want to exclude any of these partners or alienate audiences from the way we communicate about our work. With ‘evidence’, we have inclusion and purpose in our name…These are some of the shared values that attracted people to ACE and continue to be our guiding force”.  

This guiding force is evidence in the centre today. Though ACE is physically based in South Africa , its terms of reference, departure points, and the mission it is working to achieve is Africa-orientated. Carina says on this point, “We could have said South Africa, but that would limit us in our aspiration and what we want to achieve”. And apart from all that, who doesn’t love the acronym? It lets our team approach any challenge or opportunity in a way that is unique to our organisation and the values we hold; the name says it all: we can ACE anything.  

Evidence synthesis team at an ACE strategy meeting

Natalie remembers in the office this, “electric atmosphere charged with the excitement of what a new centre could be. I remember one day I was sitting in my desk in our old house that serve as our offices. I was sitting there, doing work or whatever – I dunno – when Ruth popped her head around the corner. I think by this stage she’d spoken to Laurenz, Yvonne, probably Precious. Anyway, so she says to me: ‘I think we’re starting a new research centre, and we’re trying to figure out the name. Would you say the Africa Centre for Evidence sounds better, or the Africa Evidence Centre?’” Natalie recalls shrugging, giving her suggestion, and continuing with her day, but notes especially, “It was very much how our team worked in the early days; Ruth popping around to people’s offices to hear their views about things like what the name of our centre should be. Usually, a research assistant wouldn’t have a say in stuff like that but there I was, thinking about what I would name the centre with the woman who paid my salary”. Another long-standing colleague, Precious Motha, adds her voice to the narrative of “the process of coming up with the name ACE. It was a great reflection on the work that we had done at the time in Africa, and the community we had developed, especially in the evidence space. So the strides we had taken really helped us to reflect on what we had done so far, our strengths, and our focus…We knew that we couldn’t name it anything else and so, it had to be Africa”.   

“It was very much how our team worked in the early days; Ruth popping around to people’s offices to hear their views about things like what the name of our centre should be. Usually, a research assistant wouldn’t have a say in stuff like that but there I was, thinking about what I would name the centre with the woman who paid my salary”

The engine of meaning driving ACE  

As reflected in the blog post preceding this one, and this post itself, Ruth has an ability to gather people equally passionate about Africa’s place as a leader in the world of evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM). It is this ability that has become the engine that has kept ACE running for the last five years. Not surprising then that when I discussed ACE with someone from the South African government, she recounted her early years in different institutions. She remembers feeling isolated because of her views on what a research assignment should be and what it should achieve. Questioning the usefulness of research, she would ask herself: “What is the point of this research? What difference does it make? Why do I work so hard to produce research only for the sake of research alone?”  

That was until she found Ruth and her team at ACE. She describes how “the point of it all started coming together”. At ACE she recognised a common thread – a certain type of thinking that resonated with her – that ran through everyone at ACE. She adds, “It (the thread) is in certain individuals who gravitate towards each other because they share the same value – understanding that the main reason for it all is to effect change at community level”.  

 She adds, “It (the thread) is in certain individuals who gravitate towards each other because they share the same value – understanding that the main reason for it all is to effect change at community level”.

We are not ACE – ACE is us

We are not ACE – ACE is us 

Though hosted by UJ, ACE has crafted a personality of its own and this is seen in the people that make up its teams. “We have a strong social justice orientation, and this is not because of ACE, but more that we found each other like that, and all that has happened is we have influenced each other and have learnt from each other, that we ‘hone’ our ideas and beliefs as we continue to interact with each other”, shares Carina. ACE stands out from contemporaries because of this orientation around the people that make up its team and the collective goal to bring about positive change through EIDM. Even in the naming of the centre, this group of like-minded individuals collaborated to name ACE. Sitting here in my home today, I can imagine them sitting at our favourite place – the lapa1–  exchanging ideas together and having fun coming up with what to call what was next.  

 “We have a strong social justice orientation, and this is not because of ACE, but more that we found each other like that,”

When I joined ACE, my first task was to gather stories. But as I did this, I soon recognised in these stories some of my own beliefs, purposes similar to mine, and values that reflected my own. And so, I too am becoming part of the story of ACE and the characters that centre around it. While it has been and continues to be a rich experience and a steep learning curve, I find myself excitedly asking: ‘what’s next?’  

COMING UP! We explore how these people demonstrate their commitment to relationships in the origins story of the Africa Evidence Network. Join me on this walk in the next blog where we will continue #ACEingIt.