Developing capacities through cooperation: Example of Niger

Prof. Rabani and ZEF colleagues in Bonn.

October 19, 2019.  

Interview with Professor Adamou Rabani, Vice Chancellor for Research and Foreign Affairs of the Université Abdou Moumouni (UAM) of Niamey, Niger.

How many international cooperation projects does your university have?

Currently, I do not have the exact statistics, my institution is the first and most important university in Niger. We have strong and very important international collaborations worldwide. For example, my own laboratory has developed important research and capacity building collaborations with German higher education and research institutions. The number of our international collaborations has increased considerably, since we started cooperating with ZEF in the context of the WASCAL project in 2013. By now, we are cooperating within around 5 ZEF capacity development and research projects, namely WASCAL, RARSUS, WASCAL-PAUWES, WAC-SRT and CIREG.

This opportunity has allowed us also to build a strong partnership with ZEF's partners: IIT-TH Cologne, United Nations University (UNU), Potsdam Institute for Climate Research impacts (PIK) and the Pan African University in Water and Energy Sciences (PAUWES) hosted by Tlemcen University in Algeria. In collaboration with ZEF and the other partners, we have been involved between 2017 – 2019, as key partners in the mobilization of around 6 million euro in grants provided by international partners to conduct research on issues related to energy, water, food security and climate change in Niger and other West-African countries and to organize high-level training trough workshops. During the last workshop session, we gathered graduate students from 15 West, Central, East and North Africa countries at UAM .

So is there a kind of Germany-bias in your cooperation?

No, but Niger is these last years a priority country on the German national agenda for development and economic cooperation, and our university, the largest in Niger, with 27,000 students enrolled, approximately 1,000 lecturers and technical staff members has his role to play. So many roads lead to us and we are the key partner and first address for the German Embassy in Niger regarding higher education and research.

How does the university and in particular the students benefit from these kind of collaborations?

Niger’s and Africa's universities in general receive state funds for teaching, but not for conducting research. So the whole process of how to develop a research proposal and apply for funds, which is business as usual in the global academic community, is something we have to learn and teach. And we have to develop the skills to do so. This is one of the things we learn in our collaborative efforts. These collaborations allow also to establish a long-term, research-based higher education partnership between my institution and German universities and research centers. For the students there are many more benefits: Interacting, exposure, exchange with scientists from different countries and academic backgrounds. These experiences enrich your academic and personal perspectives. Education brings mobility, first of all of the mind.

The first partnership initiative that my university developed with ZEF is the implementation of the WASCAL (West-African Science Service Center in Climate Change and Adapted Land Uses) Master Research Program in Climate Change and Energy. The main objective of this program is to prepare and train a new generation of interdisciplinary professionals capable of proposing adapted solutions to face the challenges posed by climate change challenges and by the energy crisis in West-Africa. After two successful batches of 20 graduates, we plan to upgrade the master program to PhD level this year to generate more research capacities in the area.

How does the government of Niger respond to all these activities undertaken at your university?

They are very interested, as our practice-oriented research fits very well into the National Economic Development Plan (PDES 2017-2021) on multiple aspects such as energy, water, agriculture and food security, education, rural development, climate change….For example: Within the German–African research project for sustainable resources supply in sub-Saharan cities called RARSUS (Risk Assessment and Reduction Strategies for Sustainable Urban Resource Supply in Sub-Saharan Africa) which was launched in 2017, we identify solutions and strategies for sustainable urban development on issues related to sustainable supply of water, energy and food in Niamey, Niger.

RARSUS has attracted the interest of the government in the context of the target set by the Haut Commisariat a l’initiative 3N (i3N) of the President of Niger to achieve food security through an independency of rice imports by 2023. Since then, national production of rice has been enhanced and RARSUS raised interest because is has been dealing with these issues since three years. For example, the important renewable energy potential of the country is considered a key alternative to boost irrigation water for rice production and horticulture. All the project findings on sustainable water, energy and food supplies will be made available to decision makers and stakeholders through policy brief papers and demonstration sites.

Another aspect is that more than 80% of the Niger population live in rural areas. Less than 1% of the rural people have access to electricity, when it is 100% in most developed countries. To handle West Africa’s rural underdevelopment issue, the German–West-African Excellence center on Sustainable Rural development (WAC-SRT) Project developed by UAM and Ghanaian Universities with the support of ZEF, has targeted technological, socio-economic, socio-political, administrative and cultural aspects to generate the sustainable transformation of rural areas. The main initiatives undertaken are related to how human resources in West-Africa can be developed through educating and training students, researchers and administrative staff, and through mobility enhancement and the implementation of local development case study sites in rural areas.

How do these field sites work exactly?

The research cooperation projects operate on a number of pilot sites in rural areas. These sites include electricity generation through renewable energy (especially solar), mobilization of potable and irrigation water, fishing ponds development for local consumption but also commercial purpose, creation of other revenue-generating activities (phones recharge center, ice production center, movie center…), community organization initiatives. For example, the development of a renewable energy site in a remote rural area where it is very difficult to bring the grid, the valorization of solar energy, by just creating phones recharge center or to pump groundwater for drinking, irrigation and community fish production can be economically and socially very profitable. Moreover, these sites are used also as “open labs” where students and scientists work together with rural communities, for socio-economic, technological and climatic data collections for knowledge generation, scenarios and climatic services provision for rural areas sustainable development.

How do these “open labs” with rural communities function?

We organize demonstrations in the city but also on the spot. Rural committee members are invited and those who are most committed, interested and promising are engaged in further collaboration. We have by now around 120 households involved in the Sekoukou Village, around 1,000 persons involved. The students are working in and with the rural communities and develop practical tools. Our philosophy is that the communities should benefit directly from our research.  

Can you give an example?

The solar panels we have set up can be used for charging phones. Cell phones are important tools for farmers to keep them informed about market prices and market developments. In the past, they sometimes had to walk or drive 20 kilometers just to charge their phones. Due to solar energy they now have a nearby and cheaper option. This also applies to refrigerators, which can be operated with solar energy now.

How can this practice-oriented research have a long-term impact?

Well, technology alone will not solve the problems as we all know. So we brought in social sciences, as well as economics. We need an interdisciplinary education approach in order to be successful. Of course, the research projects bring in equipment for operating the rural research sites. But, in the end, the villages have to do it on their own. So we started to develop business models with the farmers and stakeholders to enable them to apply for governmental and other funds in the future. We also want to have an impact on the policy level with our research.

What career perspectives do the students of the different collaboration programs at your university have?

Well, we want our students of course to continue and contribute with their skills to national and regional development. Some of our first batch of MSc students work with the national and regional agencies (Water, Rural Electrification, Energy, Climatic and Meteorology…), other students have ideas for start-up enterprises for water and electricity production and distribution in remote areas. There are also students who reveived international scholarships after obtaining their MScs and are pursuing their PhDs now.

So do you think education can be a serious alternative to migration?

Yes, I even think education is the solution. At least in my case it was. During my PhD studies I visited the USA. Then, after finishing my PhD in Photochemistry at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar in Senegal, I have been working one year as visiting associate Professor in the USA at the Center of Fluorescence Spectroscopy in the Maryland with a Fulbright Scholarship. All my colleagues thought I was going to stay in the USA forever, but I wanted to return to my country and build something up, give something back. With education comes responsibility. When you come from countries like ours, it is not about what you can earn for your own, but what you can bring to make positive transformation. Academic exchange and mobility are important, but you always come back and contribute to developing your country. The real brain drain is when you leave your country and totally forget from where you came, when tremendous challenges are waiting to be solved there. I want to say that I strongly support academic mobility, because it’s the best way for our young students and colleagues to learn more, to have access to the last research findings. But, we have to always keep in mind that we have the responsibility to positively impact and create the conditions of continuous development.

Professor Rabani, thank you for the interview.

The interview was conducted by Alma van der Veen

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