By Aziza Modise, with support from Natalie Tannous

This blog post is part of a series on the history and development of the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) that draws on two 2020 research projects. These research projects focus on capturing ACE 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 (whose Secretariat ACE hosts) (the 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

I don’t know why I wrote these words in my field diary on the first day of the Africa Evidence Network (AEN)’s biennial EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE, hosted by the AEN secretariat the Africa Centre for Evidence. Reading it back now, it looks like providence.

Day 1.

I wake up anticipating yet another working day, but feel different anyway. It may the excitement that has been building up among the team since I got to ACE in January 2020. There was other work of course, but being in the EVIDENCE team I heard preparations about the conference at each bi-weekly team meeting. I was put in the role of gathering stories of change first from staff and then from AEN members, with each encounter I learnt about the importance of the EVIDENCE event in its ability to bring together so many professionals in the region, how lasting relationships and collaborations have come about or were strengthened through these meetings. What stood out was the way each staff member spoke about the event. All spoke with passion and excitement about the now-here-at-last EVIDENCE 2020 and had gratitude and pride about being part of such a life-changing event. Poor Siziwe; I have been nagging her for this and that information. She must be sick of me. Anyway, I look forward to immersing myself to this week and hope to tell the story just as powerful as these guys; let’s hope I am not disappointed.

The description of the excitement of the ACE’s Evidence Communities team in anticipating the EVIDENCE 2020 ONLINE event captures the spirit of the AEN: dedicated, vibrant, passionate. With this blog post, we venture deeper into ACE’s story by exploring how and where the AEN fits in and the impact this Network has had on ACE.

A trip to Bangladesh and the birth of an African network

All 23 founding members of the Africa Evidence Network (including Ruth and Carina) in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

In the second blog post, I promised to tell the reader more about the Africa Evidence Network (AEN). Well, here’s an origins story if ever there was one. Travelling back to between 2010 and 2012, our research warriors Ruth and Carina collaborated on a couple of microfinance systematic reviews as one of the pair sat in London and the other in South Africa. In December of 2012, the two attended a 3ie-Campbell Collaboration mini-symposium on Systematic Reviews in International Development hosted in Dhaka, Bangladesh. When I say attended, of course one could swap that out with gate-crashed because the mini-symposium was primarily aimed at attracting participants from Asia. After a special request, our then (still) young researchers (along with other African participants, unbeknownst to them) were invited to attend and present. Carina remembers: “Here I was, with no cooking clue of what I was talking about, and being given the responsibility of doing this presentation”. Sidebar: this on-time learning is yet another part of the pieces that makes up the unique mosaic that is ACE. Remind me to tell you in the next blog about my experience of this on-time learning.

But back to the symposium! It was only after Ruth and Carina had arrived and were enjoying dinner with fellow delegates one evening that they realised: there were 21 other African professionals attending this symposium too! Their common experience of having to ‘beg entrance’ to this Asian event was an instant shared experience. All 23 of these African professionals (including Ruth and Carina) had a keen interest in evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM), recognising the potential of EIDM principles to address the challenges Africa faced.

United by this shared interest and belief, this little community of 23 African delegates participants at this Western-organised conference hosted in Asia decided to keep in touch after the event. They set-up an occasional email to would keep one another informed of what was happening in their fields. Ruth volunteered to put together the first ‘newsletter’ and so became the de-facto coordinator of this informal group, who agreed to call themselves ‘The Africa Evidence Network’. The AEN was born of this consensus. It was very gratifying for both of our young researchers to have come across like-minded people who together wondered if we might ever have a similar symposium in Africa.

Ruth shares the lesson that has consistently stood out for her in her journey from unofficial coordinator of this loose band of colleagues to the chairperson of a 3000+ strong formalised network: Africa has its own home-grown EIDM with its own flavour, expertise, and drivers. Realising in 2013 that colleagues were presenting EIDM as an approach that originated in the United Kingdom, Ruth has made it her professional mission to reflect through the AEN the EIDM originating and happening in Africa. She concludes that, “Now I increasingly get involved in trying to highlight…the expertise that is happening here because it’s amazing and people don’t know that”.

A growing community and a chain of introductions

At the time of the AEN coming together, there was no real thought about the importance of collaboration in institutionalising evidence; nothing was yet that formalised. But, already the seeds of the network were sown. Ruth mentions that “all that was important at the time was the knowledge that we want to keep in touch, to support each other, and to learn from each other about how to use evidence to see poverty and inequality dealt with in Africa”. So they carried on learning from, and sharing with one another. As they did this, people started rallying behind this informal network: the membership list started heading towards the hundreds. Luckily, this was around the time when Ruth was bidding to the UK Department for International Development to lead the University of Johannesburg-led Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence programme (UJ-BCURE). Ruth built the AEN’s growth and maintenance into the UJ-BCURE proposal she drafted in 2013. Through UJ-BCURE, the AEN could afford to have a full-time administrator wholly dedicated to growing and maintaining this increasingly vibrant community. This post – first held by Hazel Zaranyika and then by Precious Motha – was responsible for looking after the needs of the membership. And then the membership started heading towards the thousands…

Delegate members of the Africa Evidence Newtork gathered in Pretoria, South Africa to attend EVIDENCE 2018.

With this community growing so much and so fast after three years of dedicated resources from UJ-BCURE, Ruth needed a plan to continue to sustain it. Then in 2017, another opportunity for support presented itself at one of the AEN’s biennial events: EVIDENCE 2016. One of the attendees at this event was a person from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation who was really excited about what was happening with the AEN. Again during a dinner evening at the event, she expressed an interest to do something together to Natalie Tannous. Natalie promptly sent her to Laurenz Langer. Laurenz introduced her to Ruth. This chain of introductions was happening on the side of Hewlett too, with this person continuing to introduce Ruth and ACE to others at the Foundation. An almost year-long relationship ensued before Hewlett (as we at ACE call this great partnership) funded ACE to play a stronger role in providing the secretariat to the AEN. So by 2017, ACE had an increased team (under the management of Siziwe Ngcwabe) dedicated to continue servicing the ever-growing members of the Network.

Firming up the foundation

But I hear the murmurings from among you: ‘Aziza, what is this Evidence Communities team you mentioned at the start of the post? Who are they? What do they have to do with the AEN?’ And I answer, stop murmuring – I’ll tell you!

So, it’s 2018 and the AEN is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and life is looking pretty secure. With the Network showing no signs of slowing down, the ACE team recognised the need for ACE as the secretariat to be a strong sustainable foundation to the AEN. The question arose ‘how do we make ACE sustainable?’. With support from the then-Dean, ACE underwent a series of business consulting and strategizing. As all of ACE’s teams worked the details of this out together, a question was posed: what is ACE really good at compared to some of its peers? The answers to this seemingly innocent question birthed a new structure for ACE.

Cultivating communities, the ACE way

Natalie shares with me her memory of the meeting where this question was posed and answered:

There was a chair in the middle of the circle that our tables formed. The question was hanging in the air. And then people started shouting out what we did. ‘Synthesis! We train people! We try understand more about evidence-use! We bring people together!’ Looking back, I see now how those shouted out answers were the seeds of the portfolios that ACE now has.

As the team zoomed in on each answer to interrogate and unpack it, Natalie remembers how all the groups that ACE was part of in some way – whether the secretariat to a massive network or a member organisation of a global hub – were described as ‘communities’.

ACE was different because we were actively involved in being part of and building different communities.

And then, it was perfectly clear that the AEN was one of these communities that ACE was part of. So can you see dear reader, although the AEN pre-dated ACE’s official formation in late 2016, the Network remains the largest area of work within our Evidence Communities portfolio; it is one of the largest communities we’ve cultivated.

The success of cultivating the AEN from the original Bangladesh 23 to the strong network of 3000+ it is today is due in part to the nature of the Network. The AEN is the only network that cuts across all evidence-users, evidence producers, and all those who work with them to support EIDM. “We are really strong in not bringing together just researchers. We also bring together practitioners, policy-makers, researchers, funders” says Carina. It is ACE’s ability to cultivate community across traditional silos of any kind that the Network keeps growing, and as one network member (Linda Etale from Kenya) puts it: “I had heard about evidence-based decision-making before; now here is a whole network of many individuals also working in the EIDM space. I was really interested in learning how they do their work and that is how I joined the network”.

How the AEN cultivates evidence champions

From its humble beginnings of the periodic email from Ruth, the AEN was about learning, sharing, growing, and networking together, and this hasn’t changed much. From its social media presence to its biennial EVIDENCE events, the AEN is an example of a vibrant community within the Evidence Communities portfolio. It is the ability to sustain this vibrancy through participation that keeps the Network – and other communities within ACE’s portfolio – growing. And while ACE works to cultivate this community, this community, in turn, shapes evidence champions within the larder evidence-use ecosystem.

One Network member from Uganda told me that the AEN has opened up the scope of her work such that she now has colleagues to work with, and none of them are from Uganda. Rather, they span South Africa, Ethiopia, and Cameroon. Siziwe Ngcwabe, the lead of the Evidence Communities portfolio at ACE explains to me how the AEN has been pivotal in expanding her knowledge of the EIDM field, allowing her to access information about what is currently happening in the EIDM space. Even Ruth shares how the growth of the AEN and working on EIDM with her African colleagues have given her and others more confidence to speak bravely on the continent’s issues on international evidence-use platforms. She also reflects that the AEN has made more concrete some of the things that she has always believed in and thought were probably true, and says:

“I grew up in Malawi and I’ve always felt, having then lived in the UK and then come back to South Africa, that there is expertise in Africa that people are just missing. The Network has assured me of this and made more concrete this idea that actually Africa has its own voice, its own EIDM experts, its own varieties and its own complexities. Africa is not just a recipient of somebody else’s thinking, and all of those things are very real in the AEN”.

But it is Promise Nduku’s comments about the AEN that I will leave you with, dear reader, because they capture the spirit of what kind of community the AEN is. If you allow me the space, another excerpt from my field diary:

I spoke with Promise Nduku today about the impact the AEN has had on some of its members. Before our discussion starts, he comes across as reticent with an ‘absent-minded professor’ look that dissolves as he begins to talk about the AEN. With pride, he talks about the work he has done for the AEN, how he has met great people from all over Africa through the Network. He says: “Sometimes we struggle through the confines of our work and wear blinkers and are not aware that there are opportunities that exist in Africa and beyond. [We work] without knowing that there are people who exist who can assist us in our work. The AEN gives us this opportunity”.

The spirit of the AEN, a cultivated community of ACE: dedicated, vibrant, passionate.

We’ve covered the story of our Evidence Communities portfolio here at ACE and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about how the Africa Evidence Network is a lynchpin in that work. In our next blog post, read how ACE never stops learning and why capacity-sharing is far preferable to capacity-development as we go about #ACEingIt.