Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI)’s mission is to improve the funding and resourcing of community-owned technologies that support research and scholarship. Since our inception in 2020, we’ve recognized that we've mostly explored the European and North American contexts. To remedy this, in our strategic planning for the year, we decided to engage more actively with communities in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. This is critical given our desire to walk the talk of being inclusive and diverse and holding space for under-represented communities in technology. However, to do this, we first need to understand the nuances and dynamics of the open infrastructure communities in these regions.

As one of the first steps to this broader engagement with these regions, we partnered with the West and Central Africa Research and Education Network (WACREN) last month to host a workshop in Accra, Ghana on March 15, 2023. The theme was “charting common pathways for collective action in advancing open infrastructure in Africa”. The workshop was a prelude to the annual WACREN Conference – an annual gathering that brings together researchers, librarians, open infrastructure funders, government officials, and National Research and Education Network (NREN) leaders and other stakeholders to chart common pathways to promote innovation, investment in infrastructure and service development to boost the capacity of the evolving African digital education and research landscape.

Our goal for this workshop was to facilitate a conversation between participating research funders, NREN leadership, government officials, and other key stakeholders, for them to share their understanding of the importance of open research infrastructure and the challenges and opportunities they face in their work to develop, maintain, and adopt shared infrastructure. The workshop was also a chance for the IOI team to listen to and learn from open infrastructure practitioners in Africa. This listening process is critical to ensure that our work and engagements in the long term are additive to what the African open science community is building and responsive to the dynamics of the continent.

We would like to sincerely thank Omo Oaiya and the WACREN 2023 organizing team for co-organizing this workshop, Oliver Boachie (Ghanaian Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation) and Kathleen Shearer (Confederation of Open Access Repositories) for joining our panel discussion, and all participants of the workshop for a rich, productive discussion.

Panel discussion at the WACREN-IOI workshop, with 3 panellists and facilitator Jerry Sellanga.

Key takeaways

Some of the key takeaways from the workshop are as outlined below:

Innovative ways of financing research infrastructure. During the panel discussion at the workshop, it was clear that funding for open research infrastructure is still very dependent on donor funding. Compounding the problem further is the heavy reliance on a few current funders, jeopardizing the sustainability of pre-existing local initiatives. During the discussion, participants identified the need to innovate on how to raise funds for research locally. Some innovation is already taking place in the continent. An example of creative innovation is in Nigeria, where a 2.5% tax is levied on business profits and is ploughed back into research and education funding. Facing increasing donor fatigue and reliance on development funders, participants called for more proactivity and innovation in investing in and supporting open infrastructure projects locally.

A need to engage governments in investing in research infrastructure. It is important to engage governments and policymakers in discussions around investments in research infrastructure and the adoption of shared infrastructure, because governments can provide a platform for the adoption of technology through policy formulation and funding. However, during the workshop discussions, it became apparent that the policy framework in some countries in Africa is outdated or non-existent concerning open infrastructure. NRENs have the potential to play a critical role both in helping to shape policy on matters of open infrastructure as well as in advocating for more financial support from governments. One suggestion made during discussions was to use familiar language, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), when engaging with governments to make the concept more accessible and to encourage them to participate in and contribute to finding shared paths forward.

Deepen collaboration and coordination at national and regional levels to enhance negotiation powers and facilitate knowledge exchange. Regional research and education networks like WACREN, ASREN, and UbuntuNet have been playing a crucial role in coordinating the development and provision of and capacity building around research and education infrastructure at the regional level and have made tremendous strides in enhancing connectivity. However, there is room to further deepen engagement across NRENs to build better awareness of trends and opportunities both at the national and regional levels. One example surfaced during the discussion was that pre-eminent initiatives like AfricaConnect are still not known to many. A way to address this challenge is by deepening collaboration and coordination both at the country and regional levels. NRENs, research bodies, and university associations need to deepen collaboration to enhance their negotiating power and economies of scale when acquiring certain resources like bandwidth. Collaboration also is critical because it enables stakeholders to also get information on existing or upcoming funding opportunities that may be valuable.

Facilitate multi-stakeholder dialogues and clarify stakeholders' roles to improve sustainability and governance of research infrastructure. To ensure that shared research infrastructure lives up to its potential, developing the physical components alone is not enough. It is imperative to focus on technical capacity development, developing transparent, meaningful, and effective community governance, fostering favourable policy development, and other essential factors that contribute to the efficient management and long-term viability of the infrastructure. To achieve this, it is crucial to collectively identify the most suitable organizations for specific roles and address the power imbalances in this collaborative endeavour: how can well-resourced universities contribute their technical expertise and capacity, what are the roles for-profits, and how do we ensure that the needs of less well-resourced institutions are acknowledged? Clarifying stakeholders’ roles and governance and identifying incentives for stakeholders will encourage additional contributors to come to the table and in the long term strengthen shared infrastructures.

In summary, one of the biggest takeaways from the workshop is that the African open infrastructure community has many resources and ideas that can be leveraged to grow research and scholarship. Spaces like WACREN that allow the sharing of ideas and co-creation of solutions to enhance the role that NRENs play in fostering the adoption of open infrastructure are needed. We are excited to build on this conversation and our ongoing regional research work, to deepen our engagement efforts across Africa to support the development of an already innovative research landscape.

Posted by Jerry Sellanga & Emmy Tsang