A Successful Implementation of South-South Partnership between AIMS-NEI and CEPEI in Big Data for Development

Dr. Charles Lebon Mberi Kimpolo and Fredy Rodriguez

Background and context

The use of big data for public good and especially towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, also referred to as Big Data for Development (BD4D), constitutes a growing common interest for a number of Global South organisations, which often have minimal representation in global platforms.

The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences — Next Einstein Initiative (AIMS-NEI) and the Centro de Pensamiento Estratégico Internacional (CEPEI, for its Spanish acronym) are both part of the network of five organisations in the Global South that worked on a joint proposal and subsequently received a 2-year funding from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to implement the Harnessing Big Data to meet the Sustainable Development Goals — Building Capacity in the Global South project, hereafter referred to as the BD4D network project.

AIMS-NEI agreed to partner with the Local Development Research Institute (LDRI) to create the regional hub for Africa and collaborate with other regional hubs in Asia and Latin America (CEPEI), to form a Global South network for this project.

One of the key objectives of the implementation of the BD4D Network project is for partner institutions to develop joint cross-regional capacity building initiatives. To this end, the BD4D African hub aims to take a leadership position in driving strong South-South collaborations with partners both inside and outside the BD4D network, including institutions in the private sector across Global South regions.

Formalised partnership between AIMS-NEI and CEPEI

The regional development agenda of the African countries is captured in Agenda 2063 and other continental thematic frameworks. The state of data for development needs to be improved for implementation of these frameworks and to enrich public participation in their implementation, monitoring and review. African human capital and infrastructure for data is thin and needs ramping up fast.

AIMS-NEI endeavours to keep its postgraduate training programmes and research aligned with Africa’s development agenda. In a bid to respond to the skills shortage that Africa faces in emerging technologies such as Big Data and Computer Security, AIMS-NEI has introduced new academic streams using the Work Integrated Learning (WIL) approach [1]. To this end and with the specific purpose of making its overall educational programmes more relevant to the needs of Africa’s job market, AIMS-NEI launched an 18-month Cooperative Education (Co-op) Master’s pilot program at AIMS Senegal in 2015. This new academic stream is currently offered at AIMS Cameroon and AIMS Rwanda. The implementation of the Co-op program is a partnership with the Mastercard Foundation and Global Affairs Canada through the Skills for Employability (SFE) program.

The Co-op program targets students with an academic background in mathematical sciences, leadership skills and a commitment to give-back to Africa. This work-integrated learning model is a structured method of combining formal instruction with scheduled segments of practical work experience in the appropriate industry.

In a similar vein, multilaterally agreed conclusions and recommendations of the first meeting of the Forum of the Countries of Latin America and the Caribbean on Sustainable Development recommends strengthening of multilateral cooperation at the regional and global levels. They also acknowledged the importance of the regional conferences and processes for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), emphasizing the importance of South-South cooperation, and further recommending the building institutional of capacities for data collection and monitoring with the aim of promoting an effective 2030 Agenda implementation in the region.

Based on this background and specific context of the BD4D project, in May 2018, AIMS-NEI and CEPEI signed a 5-year partnership agreement to support capacity building between the two institutions. This partnership provides a collaborative formal framework for both organisations to promote innovation with the main goal of helping Africa and Latin America to better prepare for and respond to capacity building challenges in emerging digital technologies including big data, open data, and solving problems related to development.

Key objectives and activities of the partnership between AIMS-NEI and CEPEI

Beyond building a joint capacity development initiative on big data for development AIMS-NEI and CEPEI will also accomplish the following specific objectives.

  1. Provide educational opportunities, particularly through graduate internship opportunities to promising AIMS-NEI graduates and alumni as to support the capability development training in Big Data, Computer Security and Financial Mathematics offered across the AIMS-NEI network through the Co-operative Education program.
  2. Conduct joint research projects on the thematic area of Big Data for Development and related fields through the provision of expertise when needed by the AIMS-NEI.
  3. Explore the possibility for the staff of CEPEI to participate in the delivery of courses related to emerging digital technologies (including Big Data) in order to support the Co-operative Education program across the AIMS-NEI network.
  4. Collaborate on a skills gap analysis programme to assess the needs, and increase the availability of skills in Big Data to enhance the supply of relevant expertise on the continent and to advance the work of the AIMS-NEI and its industry partners.
  5. Work on public and private partnerships to support capacity development for statisticians, practitioners, students and other relevant actors of the sustainable development ecosystem.

Through this partnership, the CEPEI will support the big data training currently delivered at AIMS Centres of Excellence through its Co-op program. To respond to the growing number of work placement opportunities for Co-op students across the AIMS network, the AIMS Industry Initiative, which supports all AIMS work integrated learning programs, has developed a mobility program to provide selected AIMS Co-op students the opportunity to do their 6-month work placements in leading partner institutions around the world. Leveraging this partnership, CEPEI agreed to participate in this Co-op mobility program and committed to receiving a number of AIMS Co-op students to provide them with both exciting and challenging research projects for their 6-month work placements every year.

CEPEI’s expertise in big data

CEPEI’s global research contributes to the generation of tools and scenarios related to the data revolution for sustainable development through the identification, analysis, and use of data in four pillars: (i) big data, (ii) data ecosystems, (iii) data journalism, (iv) data mining for better decision making, and (iv) provide the capacity building support to AIMS-NEI that is required to strengthen the big data training of the Co-op program. This is an example of knowledge sharing and expertise transfer experiences that are worth replicating across regions in the Global South.

Through the AIMS Co-op mobility program, selected AIMS Co-op students will be given an opportunity to travel to Colombia and join the CEPEI’s research teams for their 6-month mandatory work-placements. Co-op students are expected to work on challenging big data related research projects proposed by CEPEI. A key expectation is for students to acquire new skills and return to Africa to translate their knowledge and experience in addressing African challenges using big data techniques.

Success story

In the first cohort of this mobility program, through a competitive selection process, two AIMS Co-op students, one man and one woman, were selected and provided an opportunity to join CEPEI for their work placements. After a successful completion of their individual research projects, AIMS-NEI and CEPEI decided to document and share success stories and lessons learned from the first experience. This program review process will identify areas of improvement and provide recommendations on how to enhance the program thereafter. Here is an article that shares various personal experiences including social aspects of the two AIMS Co-op students from the first cohort in Colombia in general and at CEPEI in particular. In addition, this other article focuses more on their research project outcomes, their specific contributions, their learning and skills acquired during their respective work placements.

This is an example of a successful South-South collaboration in capacity building as part of the implementation of the BD4 project, an experience that the AIMS-NEI and CEPEI wish to scale up and be able to replicate in other organisations within the BD4D network.

Benefits and lessons learned

It is important for organisations in the Global South to leverage existing regional expertise to build cross-regional capacity building initiatives in leading technologies such as Big Data. The model that emerges from the AIMS-NEI and CEPEI partnership is not only cost effective, but it is also based on common priorities and shared context between the two regions.

One key challenge that several African institutions face in their various capacity building initiatives is a lack of local expertise. Africa lacks a critical mass of experts who can provide quality supervision and mentoring, especially in emerging technologies where the continent tends to play catch up. To address this, many African institutions tend to look up to the West for expertise, which is most of the time very costly. The BD4D Network project builds a South-South platform where cross-regional expertise can be leveraged through mutually beneficial partnerships and subsequently cost effective capacity building initiatives.

“This partnership between AIMS-NEI and CEPEI makes South-South cooperation a reality by connecting academia and think-tanks and therefore, leading to capacity building, intercultural and best practices exchange for knowledge generation in the sustainable development ecosystem.” — Fredy Rodriguez, Data Coordinator at CEPEI
“We are proud to leverage the support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to reach out and build new partnerships with institutions in the Global South like CEPEI, that are willing to provide our students with exciting work placement opportunities through the Cooperative Education (Co-op) mobility program. Across the AIMS-NEI network, we are working in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation and with the support of Global Affairs Canada to pilot the Co-op program. Through this program, over a period of 5 years, AIMS-NEI will train and equip over 200 students with skills in emerging technologies such as Big Data, Computer Security and Artificial Intelligence. These are industry high-demand skills which will allow young African graduates to solve challenging business problems. We believe our partnership with CEPEI will not only support the AIMS Co-op training and also produce amazing results in terms of South-South capacity building initiatives.” — Dr. Charles Lebon Mberi Kimpolo, Head of AIMS Industry Initiative


[1] Work Integrated Learning (WIL) is the term given to an activity or program that integrates academic learning with its application in the workplace. The practice may be real or simulated and can occur in the workplace, at the university, online or face-to-face. The Business/Higher Education Roundtable defines nine types of work-integrated learning; including: (1) apprenticeships, (2) cooperative education (co-ops), (3) internships, (4) mandatory professional practice, (5) field experiences, (6) applied research projects, (7) service learning, (8) incubators/accelerators, and (9) boot camps/hackathons.