By Aziza Modise with support from Natalie Tannous 

This blog post is part of a tenpart 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 evidenceinformed decisionmaking (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. 

When I joined the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE – remember this acronym; we’re going to use it a lot), my first formal task was to gather stories of change from the Africa Evidence Network members, the first of two projects that inform this blog series. I found this was a perfect way to introduce me to ACE staff members and the work that they do. At the time, I didn’t know it, but it was a privilege to interview staff face-to-face under the grass roof of the research village lapa1 with the Johannesburg sun on our backs. In fewer than two months, I would not see most of our team as I undertook interviews for the History of ACE project (the second project this series is based on): we would all be working remotely due to the COVID-19 lockdown.  

Few are the days of being together; the pandemic has distributed our team just as it has others in most of the world. But at that time, I met and had beautiful, passionate discussions with staff from the four portfolios that make up ACE: 1) Art and science of understanding evidence-use, 2) Evidence capacities, 3) Evidence communities, 4) Evidence synthesisall of which are supported by ACE’s core administrative team. The conversations with the team allowed me a glimpse into ACE’s ethos and the unique personalities that make it up. In this post, I share the (surprising) roots of ACE through some of the team members’ experiences of how this organisation began 

A purposeful people  

I sat with Ruth at the research village lapa, ready to ask her my list of interview questions. Little did I know that with Ruth, one always needs pen and paper on hand for the unexpected drawing. I sat and watched ACE come alive as Ruth doodled ACE’s structure and how everything fits together to lead ACE to a bigger vision and mission: making a difference to poverty and inequality in Africa through the use of evidence. We were supposed to have had 40 minutes together; we ended up speaking for well over an hour. I remember thinking, ‘that’s okay –she’s the director and is likely more invested in this organisation, so probably has more to say’. But it happened again. And again. And again. And. Again.

Each time I spoke with one of the eight staff interviewed about their work, passions, aspirations for ACE, and what they’d learnt, time ran away from us. 

Forming the belief to found ACE 

But I digress. Let me first take you back to where ACE began. While ACE started at the very end of 2016 as an organisation, the seeds that would bear ACE were planted many years ago in the heart of a young English girl growing up in Malawi with her missionary father and community doctor mother. Even as this child grew up and returned to her birth land to continue her studies, Professor Ruth Stewarts heart remained tied to Africa. Through the eyes of the child she was and the woman she became, Ruth knew that much was lost from having the view of Africa as a vessel to receive knowledge from a benevolent North; we in Africa have our own ‘African flavour’ in how we do things. As a young person, Ruth could feel the heartbeat of this idea growing louder and louder inside her; this belief was nascent and powerful. 

As she grew in her professional and personal life, this belief drove Ruth to seek out, collaborate with, and develop the careers of others who shared this belief. Because that’s the thing to know about Ruth as the founder of ACE: it is her mission to find the friends, colleagues, mentors, and partners who aim to make a difference by learning from the incredible innovations in Africa to grow in knowledge and expertise in the evidence ecosystem space. Ruth says of this inner driving force: “I aspire to facilitate other people to have louder voices. We have a common goal and that is to build bridges for [the] African [ecosystem of] evidence, to be heard through our partners voices as well and not just through mine. I like to make connections”. Some of these connections of colleagues, mentors, and partners include – but are of course not limited to – the current and previous members of the ACE team. It is with some of these colleagues that ACE was formed under the auspices of the University of Johannesburg. 

These connections that Ruth loves making continue to bring together like-minded people who want to see change happening through evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM). A few of these connections predate the beginning of ACE and are still prominent within the Centre today. By the end of 2020, these included the portfolio leads of Evidence capacities (Dr Carina van Rooyen), and Evidence synthesis (Dr Laurenz Langer)the strategic marketing and communications manager Ms Natalie Tannous, and Ms Christa Heyneke the centre’s administratorThere are of course some who have left ACE and are making EIDM waves in government and academia. What is incredible to note is how the collecting of like-minded individuals began long before ACE officially opened its doors.  

Meeting Carina on the HIVSA project  

There were once two academics, one based at the Social Science Research Unit at what is now the University College London: Institute of Education in the United Kingdom (UK), and the other based at what is now the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in South Africa. They were Dr George Ellison and Professor Thea de Wet. Back in 2001, these academics collaborated on a project focussed on capacity building for the evaluation of HIV/AIDS education in southern Africa – the HIVSA project. Part of this collaboration required a research assistant from the London university to travel to South Africa and run workshops. When this opportunity knocked on Ruth’s door, she sprang at the chance to return to the Africa of her youth.  

So an eager Ruth journeyed back to South Africa where she met her counterpart on the project, Carina van Rooyen. Immediately on meeting Carina, Ruth knew she had found a kindred spirit in the passionate development studies lecturer from South Africa. Another research assistant was added to the crew when Yvonne Erasmus joined the team. The three young women worked alongside one another to complete the HIVSA project, and then thought they bid one another farewell. Little did they know that working together on HIVSA had laid the foundation for Ruth, Carina, and Yvonne to partner on future projects that would be pivotal to ACE’s eventual reputation as a home for evidence synthesis experts and relationship-centred researchers 

Reviewing what we know about the impact of microfinance  

After a second HIVSA project in 2007 in which they played junior roles, in 2010 Ruth and Carina teamed up again on a project that explored the impact of microfinance on poverty through a systematic review of the evidence from sub-Saharan Africa. But this time their collaboration was different. This microfinance project was the first time that Carina and Ruth had taken the lead on a research project, instead of supporting a projectIt was followed straight away by a second systematic review on microfinance in 2012. Laughingly Carina remembers, “I had no experience in this work [systematic reviews] and so Ruth did most of the work for me and I would be the support for her, with me doing ‘just-in-time learning’ as the need arose”. It was on this second review that another ACE stalwart met Carina and Ruth. Then an honours student and going by a rather complicated surname, Natalie (Rebelo Da Silva) Tannous was signed up to the microfinance project as a research assistant. Remembering her first introduction to systematic reviews, Natalie recalls: I had no context then of how the references I was searching for fit into this bigger, more significant process. Still, I did my best to be systematic and detailed 

Carina doing some ‘just on time learning’ on the floor of Ruth’s flat during one of the first reviews.

These early reviews were a significant part of ACE’s history for three reasons. First, they were the first kind of these reviews to be done at the University of Johannesburg. Second, doing these reviews in the development field meant that the team started looking at different sources of research, different study designs, and different outcomes. To adapt this traditionally healthcare methodology to development, the team explored work that didn’t meet the traditional ‘gold standard of randomised control trials of the impacts of interventionsFinally, these reviews catapulted Ruths academic standing in the evidence synthesis for development field. She was invited to Paris to talk about their work to a globanetwork on impact evaluations, to Denmark to engage audiences in their development communities, and had many other prestigious speaking engagements besides. 

Uniting anthropologists and questioning soccer  

Meanwhile, Professor Thea de Wet (remember back to HIVSA?) had an idea of starting an applied anthropological centre. The centre would use anthropological research to address contemporary social issues with systematic reviews as a central methodology. An opportunity arose for Professor de Wet to head a research centre in the faculty and she grabbed it, and the Centre for Anthropological Research (CfAR) was born. Marcel Korth was charged with running the centre which included such activities as appointing a centre administrator. Natalie again recalls, “I had just finished my honours in anthropology and was completing a three-month internship at the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) as a communications intern. I remember how my heart was beating so hard when Marcel phoned me and offered me a job as a half-day administrator for the centre. I jumped at the opportunity and it’s amazing to see how much and how little has changed since then”. Once the centre administrator was in position, it became time to appoint research associates – such as Ruth – who was at the time was looking for continued work in South Africa and AfricaSeeing a call for funding through the UK Department for International Development (DFID), Ruth applied using CfAR as her base in Africa through her being a research associate there. New research assistants were also brought on board (such as a young man far from the land of his birth trying to make a difference in the Eastern Cape  Dr Laurenz Langer).  

Remembering his first introduction to his ACE colleagues, Laurenz describes his wakeup call when he was involved in a soccer training project that had “lofty aspirations/objectives” around gender empowerment and HIV preventionHe says

That we could have built a couple of schools with that money probably would have done much more good than us playing soccer together…Realising this made it clear to me that I need to better understand what I am doing hereSo, I became really interested in understanding the effectiveness of doing development. I saw it’s silly to start with just good intentions; it’s also silly to rely on a single study. That revelation had shaken my faith in sport and soccer development quite a bit. 

It was at this point that Laurenz’s first year lecturer in Development Studies at the time – Dr Carina van Rooyen – told him about a group of people that are also interested in studying the effectiveness of research in development. And so he arrived at CfAR to be appointed as a research assistant. The review team was growing and busy CfAR would soon be awarded two large international systematic reviews on urban agriculture. It was after the addition of more colleagues to this review team in 2013 – Hazel Zaranyika, Liz Gunner, Evans Muchiri, Yvonne Erasmus – that the review team bid for funding for a three-year long project on Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (BCURE) funded by the then UK Department for International Development (DfID). And won.  

 UJ-BCURE as a pre-cursor to ACE 

Before the University of Johannesburg-led Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (UJ-BCURE) project began in 2014, there were two leaps of faith that the team had to take. At the time, Ruth was working for the London-based Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre)2 as a senior researcher and at the UJ-based CfAR as a research associate. So the first leap of faith to take in bidding for the BCURE work was whether the project would be led from London or from UJ. A choice was made to house the project at UJ to avoid the trend of research projects ‘parachuting in’ to Africa; the project was intended to be an African project led from Africa from the very start. It was the first leap of faith on the part of the team, and it was huge for the UJ Faculty of Humanities because this was the largest research bid ever won to date. Professor de Wet remembers that the then Dean of Humanities was hesitant. She recalls his exact words were: “Who do you think is going to do the work, Thea?”, implying his acknowledgement of the immense magnitude of the project.  

The second leap of faith was who would be the lead of the project. As centre director, Professor de Wet was the most qualified academically and hence the logical lead. But upon reflection on the content of the bid, it was agreed that Ruth’s experience was better-suited to the nature of the BCURE workAnd with the three-year project, the team grew to include George Otieno, Isaac Choge, Desyree Lotter, Louis Maluwa, Sunet Jordaan, Russell Wildeman, Christa Heyneke, Janine Mitchell, and Precious Motha. Unbeknownst to the team members of UJ-BCURE, the foundation of what would become a new research centre –sooner than any of them could have known – was forming. And a major catalyst to this formation was the way the UJ-BCURE funding was structured.  

Investing beyond a single project  

Ruth shares how the manner in which the DfID grant was distributed to the CfAR allowed the funder’s investment to have much further-reaching impacts. That is, the changed exchange rate between the Rand and British Pound meant that Ruth was able to reinvest the centre’s overhead into what would become ACE. For instance, financial management course for one team member was paid for through the surplus funds from the UJ-BCURE funding, funding for open-access publications, and a year’s worth of operating costs for the Africa Evidence Network (AEN). Towards the end of the third and final year of UJ-BCURE, moments and instances abounded where team members asked one another: what’s next?  

COMING UP | How the new Centre came about and what were these moments and instances that came together so perfectly to brew the Africa Centre for Evidence. I look forward to #ACEing it with you!