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Results Briefs October 14, 2020

Building Centers of Excellence in Africa to Address Regional Development Challenges


First cohort of MPhil students at West Africa Center Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens graduate from the University of Ghana, July 21, 2017

Since 2014, the Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence (ACE) Program has become synonymous with delivering quality and relevant post-graduate education that meets the demand for skills in priority fields. Between 2014 and 2020, it supported over 14,000 Masters and PhD students in agriculture, health, and other sciences. The program continues to expand across Sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on improving teaching and learning, expanding access, and ensuring sustainability.


Over half of the world’s poor live in Sub-Saharan Africa—389 million people, or 51 percent of the 767 million people worldwide living below the extreme poverty line in 2013. To achieve strong economic growth, reduce poverty, and stem the brain drain of young people pursuing higher education and employment outside the region, Africa needs to promote increased productivity across key sectors, economic diversification, and structural reforms. Human capital development is critical to achieving these goals. Many priority economic sectors face shortages of highly skilled workers, particularly in fields related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). By equipping the young, growing workforce with relevant skills in STEM, it can develop, adapt, and apply solutions to Africa’s most pressing regional challenges.  



The Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence (ACE) Program seeks to meet labor market demands for skills in specific fields. This multi-phased program has provided significant financial and technical support to strengthen higher education in Africa, focusing on improved quality and relevance of education and training programs, improved teaching and learning, and expanded post-graduate access in key priority fields. Its first phase, ACE I, introduced innovations such as the first-ever regional higher education competition, which selected universities in West and Central Africa based on their potential for education and research excellence, as well as strong governance and management. The ACE program has evolved into a proven working model for delivering quality and relevant higher education. Beyond increasing student enrollments in target areas, the participating centers have ensured the quality and relevance of their programs by meeting international accreditation benchmarks, strengthening linkages to sector and industry, matching grants to enhance relevance and sustainability, and providing performance-based financing to deliver needed education, training, and applied research.  



Post-graduate expansion and skills development in key priority fields: Between 2014 and 2020, ACE I in West and Central Africa supported at least 2,300 doctorate (PhD) students and 11,900 Master of Science (MSc) students, of whom  30 percent are women and at least 30 percent are from the region. ACE I supported approximately 15-30 percent of the post-graduate student population.

Meeting international global standards: The push toward high quality standards has resulted in at least 61 MSc and PhD programs obtaining international accreditation over the last six years, up from a baseline of three in 2014.

Industry linkage through internships: From2014 to 2020, at least 6,250 students participated in a one-month internship in hospitals, non-governmental organizations, and private sector firms.

Improved learning and teaching environment: Between 2014 and 2020, at least 14 ACEs completed construction and installed equipment to improve the learning environment on their host university campus. This included the commissioning of new buildings, laboratories, conference rooms, lecture halls, and smart classrooms.

Industry relevance through revenue generation: From 2014 to 2020, participating universities used the ACE I matching grant approach to raise over $52 million in external funds.


Cohort of MSc and PhD students at the ACE for Oil Field Chemicals from University of Port Harcourt


Development impact:

  • Redeemers University, a private university in Nigeria, was selected as a Center of Excellence on Genomics of Infections Disease (ACEGID) under ACE I. This is where the first sample of Ebola was tested in Nigeria within a six-hour time frame.
  • Several centers are contributing to the COVID-19 response, drawing on regional scientific research. Among them, the ACEGID and the West Africa Center for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) at the University of Ghana are at the forefront in sequencing the virus. In collaboration with the Nigeria Center for Disease Control, ACEGID was the first to sequence the genome of COVID-19 in Africa in early March 2020. Since then, it has sequenced almost 50 samples and tested approximately 10 percent of the Nigeria COVID-19 tests.
  • The Center of Excellence in Mathematics, Computer Science and ICT (CEA-MITIC) at the University Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis, Senegal is collaborating with the Saint-Louis hospital and producing face shields using 3-D printing.


Bank Group Contribution

The International Development Association (IDA) has invested over $580 million to support more than 70 centers in 20 countries in West, Central, East, and Southern Africa. This breaks down in the following manner:

  • $165 million for the first phase of the ACE program (ACE I) in Western and Central Africa
  • $148 million for the second phase of the ACE program (ACE II) to expand to East and Southern Africa
  • $143 million for the First ACE for Development Impact Project to further scale up and extend the ACE program
  • $131 million for the Second ACE for Development Impact Project to further scale up and extend the ACE program



Under ACE I, the Bank partnered with the African Association of Universities as the project’s Regional Facilitation Unit. It was responsible for regional coordination, including verification of results and organizing at least 12 regional higher education workshops. The project also partnered with the Economic Commission for West African States and the West African Economic and Monetary Union as key members of the Regional Steering Committee. Individual ACEs have leveraged partnership funding from Welcome Trust, DAAD German agency, and private companies working in the STEM, agriculture, and health sectors. Additionally, the ACE for Development Impact project has leveraged partnerships with the French Development Agency to co-finance ACEs in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Nigeria.


Moving Forward

ACE I was designed to ensure that universities would continue to grow after the project ended, and efforts were made to strengthen universities’ capacities to generate revenue. Following the closure of ACE I in September 2020, additional financing was provided for the First and Second ACE for Development Impact Projects to scale up and extend the program from 22 to 55 ACEs in Benin, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ghana, The Gambia, Guinea, Senegal, Togo, Nigeria and Niger). ACE Impact builds on ACE I successes, with additional focus on the power, electricity, health systems, logistics, and transport sectors.



ACE I beneficiaries include students, faculty, and staff of ACEs and partner institutions. Many women have been able to develop skills in STEM through ACE I, including Mané Seck, a PhD student on scholarship at the Center of Excellence in Mathematics, Computer Science and ICT (CEA-MITIC) in Saint-Louis, Senegal. She says she  has been able to further her research projects through “MITIC’s ideal work environment and the mobility grants it provides.” She has spent time at laboratories in Tunisia and the UK to learn more about cutting-edge technique in her field. In 2019, she was one the three Senegalese scientists to take part in the prestigious Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings as one of the next generation leading scientists.

Picture: CEA-MITIC’s Facebook page

Second example of beneficiaries:

ACE I  supported the development of a two-year Master of Philosophy (MPhil) program in Ghana, hosted by the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP). The MPhil is designed to train biomedical scientists with new approaches to molecular cell biology and provide the needed knowledge on the major pathogens causing disease in Sub-Saharan Africa, thereby tackling one of the key issues in the region’s development. The first cohort of Master’s students enrolled in the program graduated in 2017.