You will never know if something works unless you try it

An interview by former BBC Africa bureau Chief, Peter Burdin, with ESSA Trustee, Uta-Micaela Dürig, Vice Chair of the Board of Management, Robert Bosch Foundation

You were an early convert to the concept of ESSA. What was it that first inspired you to get involved?

We developed the concept of ESSA together with various people who came in with their ideas and expertise, and through these intellectual sparrings, shared visions and practical experiences, ESSA came together.

From the start, it has always been this combination of identified challenges and great potentials that have been pushing us forward. We want to transform educational outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa. This is an ambitious task and there is a risk of failure but the whole journey has also been very motivating.

It is a privilege to be able to start from a blank page with a small but very energetic team, where we could cultivate a start-up like culture. All founding members and the board have been very enthusiastic from the very beginning. But most importantly: The conversation we have with partners and stakeholders and the projects we’ve started show us that the concept fits the existing needs of education in sub-Saharan Africa.


As a senior leader of the Robert Bosch Foundation, how did ESSA fit with your own Foundation’s aspirations?

Africa has taken a more prominent role in the Foundation’s activities in the recent two years. Our strategy on the continent focuses on supporting excellence in science and providing access to education. We have a strong tradition in educational projects, both in Germany and across the world.

Education is the underlying basis for development and a key element for the social cohesion of our societies, one of our focus areas as a foundation. Our engagement on the continent is based on the conviction that solutions are best tailored to fit a given country if they are homegrown. It is important for us that our African partners take the lead in our projects, so that we can all learn from each other and together create a sustainable quality of life.

RBSG/Björn Hänssler Photo: RBSG/Björn Hänssler

Your ESSA co-board member Patrick Dunne has described the early start-up days of ESSA as a “roller coaster - an exhilarating mix of ups and downs”. Has it felt like that to you?

Well indeed, it has been incredibly dynamic. However, in a good sense: we have been in talks with many people from different sectors and almost everyone sees the need in what we are trying to do.

Of course, when you set up a new initiative there are always ups and downs and not all of your wishes come true. But, at the same time, I constantly see reasons to be optimistic and gain courage. For example, we only recently launched ESSA at the Next Einstein Forum in Kigali, the biggest African scientific conference that has ever taken place. We received a lot of interest and encouragement for our endeavors at the conference, which is great and a motivation to move on.


Two years on how do you view ESSA’s prospects now? Daunting? Exciting?

It is very exciting to see the ideas we have been developing come to life now. For example, the “Demographics of Faculty” project that we have just started in Ghana. One key question for African countries is where qualified faculty will come from to cope with an increasing demand for Higher Education. The accessibility and quality of reliable data will be crucial for future resource planning. Together with the African Association of Universities and the Ghanaian government, we have just started a pilot for this project to react to that challenge.

Growing into the future, ESSA will gain more knowledge and experience by successfully implementing a number of interesting projects. We will also extend our network, in Africa and beyond, and slowly but surely raise a lot of awareness for the topic with the relevant stakeholders. It is definitely an exciting perspective!


 

What has inspired you most since joining ESSA? Has there been a single encounter or incident?

I guess, the numerous conversations we’ve had have been very inspiring, as they have all confirmed that education is the key topic for Africa’s development and our world as a whole.

I particularly recall an exchange I had with African students of our Robert Bosch United World College in Freiburg, an international school where 200 young people from over 90 countries live and learn together for two years. These young people vividly explained to me why education is their springboard for a better life and how many visions they have for their home countries. Especially the girls were bursting with optimism and ideas, and you could really feel their enthusiasm to change the world for the better.

I was thinking – this is how the future looks like! And it is so important that we support these young people. Moments like this are quite moving and show me that we are trying to do the right thing.


ESSA’s founding vision was to “Transform Educational Outcomes in Sub-Saharan Africa”. Can ESSA achieve that vision?

Yes, of course! There is always a risk to fail but you will never know if something works unless you try it. And even if it falls flat – and I don’t think so! – ESSA would have achieved a lot. Already, we have inspired great many organizations and people to realize projects they wouldn’t have done otherwise. One of the key elements of ESSA’s vision – to match potential funders with promising projects to maximize impact – has proven to be quite successful. With our help, stakeholders from the corporate and political sector were able to identify beneficiaries relevant to their own strategic goals. Additionally, we have already started and implemented initiatives that will transform education and research on the continent. Let me just highlight two examples for this:

  • With our “Demographics of Faculty” project, for example, we address a demand we have identified in the sector: There seems to be few comprehensive national, regional or continental systems that model anticipated growth, project faculty capacity and need by specialization in order to inform recruitment and development plans at a system level. Therefore, our strategy is twofold: We are on the one hand assembling the facts, making the issue of supply of faculty present in the debate and by that change the discourse. But we also aim at creating robust planning tools for Higher Education institutions, to be able to influence the scale and nature of investment in developing high quality faculties to match both need and demand.

  • The database on African-based education research that we are currently convening together with the REAL Centre, University of Cambridge will help to fill an existing gap by providing a mapping of research of relevance to achieving the SDGs undertaken by sub-Saharan African researchers based in African institutions. At the moment, no systematic assessment of such research is available, leaving a lot of interesting work by bright scholars overlooked and undervalued. And most importantly: Governments and international bodies need to acknowledge this research as an indispensable asset in their own jurisdictions.


 

What in your view are the key elements ESSA needs to deliver to make a big impact on Africa’s educational challenges?

ESSA needs to sustainably join-up partners, from within Africa and from outside, with competences that are truly needed, on issues where impact matters, for example the recruitment of quality faculty in key areas of need such as STEM and ICT.

If ESSA can bring investors together also from the business space, on such a topic, to create a precondition for excellent teaching at scale, we can have a big impact. ESSA can make a big difference if it can pool knowledge and evidence to underpin and inspire action. Let’s take scholarship programs as an example: We are keen to develop KPIs for such programs to make them transparent and more effective. It would be a great success if we achieved, together with other partners, to position these as “quality standards” and if e.g. business designed new scholarship initiatives in following these KPIs. Or if we can create a global space for exchange of scholarship managers.

In my dreams, ESSA will also have an impact if it can mobilize more German and European stakeholders, the State and EU-Commission as well as private actors, to invest more in the educational ecosystem in Africa, beyond professional training. Germany has neglected supporting primary education in the Global South, and it could be much stronger in supporting Higher Education and vocational training, too.


What next for ESSA? - become more African-led? The Youth Panel? Research Database? The Knowledge Hub?

Next for ESSA is to grow sufficiently to be able to really deliver – and more than all, we need a bigger team. Next will also be a second partnership with an African government, after the one with Ghana that we have already in place. And thirdly, we need to focus and extend our partnership base for the ESSA core themes: Africa-based research in education to be asked for and used by policy-makers, Impact of Scholarships, Faculty and educational data. ESSA has a step-by-step approach!


Why are you personally so deeply engaged in ESSA, also in the daily business?

I am simply deeply convinced of ESSA’s idea. And because I have a daughter, who, in her young age, has all the possibilities to live in health, go to school and learn all the things she wants to learn. For her, this is normal and self-evident, but millions of children still don’t have these opportunities, especially a lot of young girls.

Thirty-two years ago, on my first visit to Asia, many frightened children looked at me, and I will never forget their searching eyes and hands held out towards me. What I felt back then has ever since been my driving force and motivation to invest my time, energy and creativity to change the life of especially girls and women for the better – no matter in which country. I, for example, in a personal commitment still support an orphanage in Colombo, Sri Lanka – the country I visited these thirty-two years ago.


When you look forward to the future what does success for ESSA look like? What is the point of arrival?

Oh, I am not sure if there ever will be a point of arrival. We are a learning organization and, as I said, follow a step-by-step logic, also in our successes. Continuous positive developments are our big goal. One of the most important things will be to become a truly African-led initiative. In the end, ESSA will have a big impact if it will have contributed to having made ourselves superfluous.


Are others welcome to support ESSA?

Yes, of course – most welcome! It is the core conviction, and basic idea, of ESSA, that joining up, pooling and sharing resources and skills will have the biggest and most powerful impact.