During the Africa Centers of Excellence (ACE) International Partnerships Workshop held on Wednesday, May 8th, 2024 (session II), university presidents engaged in a profound dialogue concerning the influence of centers of excellence on their respective institutions. The focus of the discussions were on fostering an environment conducive to innovation, impactful research, and establishing connections with industries. The session took place at the Intercontinental Resort, Balaclava Fort, Mauritius and was moderated by Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai, a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Mauritius and former Secretary-General of the Association of African Universities. 

Commending the ACEs for their remarkable strides and profound influence on both host institutions and nations, Professor Mohamedbhai set the stage for an enlightening exchange. Introducing the distinguished panelists, he posedcritical questions to each, focusing on support for the ACEs, the sustainability of these centers, and the various financial mechanisms and partnerships needed to enhance collaboration between ACEs in Africa and internationally. 

Panel Discussion 

Professor Svein Stølen, the Rector of the University of Oslo and Chair of The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, highlighted the significant impact of the global environment on higher education institutions, including factors like geopolitics and export controls. He emphasized the essential role of international cooperation for forward-thinking universities, suggesting that collaborations could be initiated in one country and expanded to others over time. He cited an example from Norway, where there have been five generations of centers of excellence, which have facilitated predictability, long-term planning, excellence, institutional commitment, prioritization, and  transformation of national and institutional perspectives within universities. 

The University of Oslo places great emphasis on collaborating with research-based innovation centers. Recently, it has forged partnerships with the Africa Research Universities Alliance. To enhance these collaborations, the university adopts innovative approaches in its engagement with Africa, investing time in meticulously designing partnerships. For instance, establishing the partnership with some Nigerian Universities required three years to cultivate trust and align priorities, he said. Professor Stølen underscored the importance of taking decisive actions rather than prolonged discussions, with a focus on bolstering infrastructure and career structures. He concluded by emphasizing the necessity of exploring diverse strategies to achieve sustainability, secure long-term financing, and foster mutually beneficial partnerships. 


Professor El Hadji Bamba Diaw, the Director General of the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2iE) in Burkina Faso, shared that 2iE boasts of two ACEs, which have been seamlessly integrated into their host institution in terms of administrative procedures and governance. These Centers have forged strategic partnerships, spearheaded the adoption of best practices at the institutional level, and motivated the extension of ISO certification to all activities of 2iE. They serve as vibrant hubs for research and innovations in engineering and water-related thematic areas. Additionally, language inclusivity is being promoted through a dedicated Center for languages. 

In pursuit of sustainability, both 2iE and the Burkina Faso government view the ACEs as a valuable “brand” that has facilitated increased partnerships, financial support, and the training of over 1000 young Africans.The incubators associated with 2iE Centers are interconnected with the private sector, fostering impactful research through fellowships and scientific output. An innovative irrigation system has been implemented on an agricultural farm. Moreover, the 2iE Centers have played a pivotal role in fortifying collaborations not only within Burkina Faso but also across neighboring countries such as Ghana, Niger, Benin, and Ivory Coast. 


Professor Celestino Obua, the Vice Chancellor of the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) in Uganda began by reminding the participants that traditional medicines were used in Africa but were not widely studied. There was therefore vast indigenous knowledge related to traditional medicines that was un-documented. PHARMBIOTRAC was established in 2017 as a Center of Excellence at the MUST to address the challenges of low life expectancy and productivity due to communicable and non-communicable diseases, through “building a critical mass of specialized and skilled human resource that can advance traditional medicine and Pharm-Biotechnology for socio-economic development of Africa”. 

The Center has permeated MUST holistically – by impacting research, teaching, curriculum, and accreditation of programs. The Center has acquired state of the art equipment. The MUST Centre for Innovations and Technology Transfer (CITT) collaborates closely with PHARMBIOTRAC. During COVID-19, PHARMBIOTRAC developed COVIDEX, a treatment for COVID-19. MUST has seen an exponential rise in PhD graduates and are now able to recruit scientists outside Uganda because of the good reputation of PHARMBIOTRAC. They have collaborations with Ethiopia, Malawi, and other countries outside Africa. 

Speaking on sustainability of PHARMBIOTRAC, Prof. Obua referenced various initiatives being implemented to ensure this, including joint resource mobilization, and philanthropic activities. He added that the strength of the ACE program has been around promoting accountability in the implementation of activities, and results verifications.  

Prof. Tomislav Josip Mlinaric, the Vice Rector of the University of Zagreb in Croatia participated virtually and said that his university has five Centers of Excellence that were created recently. These are in the fields of Medicine, Molecular Biology, Quantum Algebra, Neuroscience and Data Science. These Centers support national development. 

Since 2002 the University of Zagreb has been collaborating with Africa, adding that  Staff from some Nigerian Universities have already visited Croatia. He stressed that sustainability can be achieved by implementing supportive financing policies and designing strategic measures to address global challenges. 


Professor Sanjeev K. Sobhee, Vice Chancellor of the University of Mauritius, said that even though Mauritius had no funded Center of Excellence, they had several pockets of Research Excellence in the areas of biomedical research, Tourism and Slavery Research. These pockets of research excellence followed the rules for being Centers of Excellence.

He added that the Centers respect the need to address national priorities. One Center, for instance, is collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA. The University of Mauritius is implementing its own research schemes to strengthen its collaborations with key stakeholders. Currently, the university is party to several collaborations with various African countries and institutions – including the African Economic Research Consortium, membership to the Southern Africa Regional Universities Alliance, Association of African Universities, Australia Africa Universities Network, and the African Research Universities Alliance. The university is also collaborating with European universities through the Erasmus plus initiative. 

“By joining strategic networks and associations, the University of Mauritius is leveraging African Research Centers of Excellence and being connected to platforms that address resource limitations”, stated Professor Sobhee. He underscored the important role of governments and development partners in contributing to addressing the sustainability challenge and called on higher education to engage such partners more closely.  


Moderated Q&A session  

A question was asked on how the Centers of Excellence were addressing the issues of sustainable funding. 

In response, the Director General of 2iE said that when funding for their Centres was delayed due to various reasons, they were able to finance activities for the Centers from the main 2iE institutional budget. This was possible because the ACE is considered to be an important “brand“. Therefore, 2iE leveraged its other sources of finance to support the Centres run effectively.    

The Vice Chancellor of Mbarara University of Science and Technology said that the Centers of Excellence had promoted resilience and therefore host universities made it a point to ensure its sustainability.   The VC added that sustainability must go beyond writing grants and focus on the expansion of networks and collaboration to facilitate long-term and deeper success. 


Other suggested funding mechanisms, as laid out during the discussions included tapping into the various initiatives existing on the continent and elsewhere, such as the Erasmus plus initiative, as well as also creating and promoting spin-offs from expansions. Closer engagement of governments was also highlighted. 2iE additionally indicated that they are using their high-level equipment to support the sustainability plans of their Centers of Excellence.  

Covenant University‘s strategy include investing an annual amount for sustaining their Center and ensuring that these funds are part of the institutional budget.  


The Rector of the University of Oslo highlighted the need for institutions to commit to long-term sustainable funding. On its part, it employs a number of strategies, including encouraging its professors to be oriented towards competing for grants. 

The University of Mauritius research center was said to be linked to financial independence. Its researchers have been very active, and the center was self-funded for 5 years because of its niche programs that are high quality and very much in demand. 

A question was asked concerning post-doctoral level manpower and where trained students went to. 

Mbarara University of Science and Technology shared that three of its students had returned to their home countries and become heads of departments or Deans of faculties. Others had set up small industries. Additionally, there were research projects that supported post-doctoral training at Mbarara University of Science and Technology. 

The Director General of 2iE said that they had an effective system to follow up on their students and they knew where they went after graduation. 

Closing Remarks by Moderator 

Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai summarised the discussion by stating that institutional commitments were critical to the success of the Centers of Excellence. Sustainability was a complex issue that had to involve the institutions and the governments. Collaborations between the AU and EU have been taking place for years and that there are several opportunities for collaborations within the wider ecosystem that Centers could tap into. It was said that an independent evaluation of the Centers of Excellence would be very useful. He added that stakeholders should not be worried about doctorates leaving Africa because they cannot be forced to stay, but rather favourable working environments can be created to attract them to stay.  

Clearly, University policies, funding, and administrative systems have be adopted to support the Centers of Excellence. The integration of the Centers as a core part of their host institutions is contributing to the sustainability of the Centers. 

The types of financial instruments to strengthen the cooperation between Centers and other centers in Africa and abroad include national government financing, alternative resource mobilization and funds generated from spin-offs.  

The partnership options that would strengthen the cooperation between Centers of Excellence and other centers in Africa and abroad – include Erasmus Plus, membership to research universities alliances and membership to subject specific thematic groups.  


Short Biographical Information

Moderator: Prof. Goolam Mohamedbhai is an independent consultant in higher education, with a special interest in Africa. He has served as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius and held leadership positions in several international organizations, including the Association of African Universities and the International Association of Universities. He chairs the Regional Steering Committee of the African Centers of Excellence for Eastern and Southern Africa.  


Prof. Svein Stølen is the Rector of University of Oslo and Chair of The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. He was also elected the first president of the European University Alliance Circle U, a European University Alliance.  He is a professor of chemistry, with research interest in inorganic materials, especially relationships between structure and properties. 


Prof. El Hadji Bamba Diaw currently serves as the Director General of the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2iE) in Burkina Faso, where he is also a distinguished full professor specializing in water sciences and techniques. With a diverse academic background including a master’s degree in applied physical sciences and a PhD in Fluid Mechanics, he has held various significant roles such as Director of the Polytechnic School of Thiès and Head of the research division of the University of Thiès, Senegal 


Prof. Celestino Obua, Celestino Obua is a medical doctor and Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, currently serving as Vice Chancellor at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) and chairing the Board of Directors at Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB). Prof. Obua focuses on capacity building in areas such as non-communicable diseases and HIV/AIDS prevention. 


Prof. Tomislav Josip Mlinaric is the Vice Rector of the University of Zagreb in Croatia. He is a full professor in the Department of Transport and Traffic Sciences. He currently holds several management positions including president of the Committee for Innovation and Technology Transfer of the University of Zagreb and Head of the Land Transport Section of the Scientific Council for Transport in the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts.  


Professor Sanjeev K Sobhee is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius and has been spearheading major academic reforms at the University including the streamlining of several administrative processes and procedures. Professor Sobhee has wide experience in teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels across different fields of Economics. His teaching focus has been Advanced Macroeconomics, Public Policy, Economics of the Environment and Sustainable Development and Quantitative Methods mostly on postgraduate programmes.