Cross-border Collaboration with Colleagues in Africa

November 1, 2021

By Li-Ming Pan (Harvard Center for African Studies Communications and External Relations Officer)

As an area studies center at Harvard, we are no stranger to cross-border collaboration in a virtual world. However, this pandemic has shed new light on how we think about collaborating in the future. The Center connected with faculty affiliates and their research partners abroad who are successful in working between Harvard and Africa, and we are pleased to share their insights on this topic.

Although the nature of their work has always included remote work, due to the pandemic, there were many changes to how research collaborations were accomplished – from differing restrictions and experiences on the ground to travel restrictions and changing national regulations. So, how did they continue to be successful in their work?

Differences on the ground

While the majority of us at Harvard started working from home in March of 2020, Dr. Mary Mwanyika-Sando, Chief Executive Officer of the Africa Academy for Public Health in Tanzania, explains how different it was in Tanzania. Since October 2020, she had returned to work in the office. This was similar to the experience of our colleagues in Nigeria. The projects Dr. Mwanyika-Sando collaborates with at Harvard have always mostly been remote; however, she shared that it’s always easier to work with people you have met before. The Africa Research, Implementation Science, and Education (ARISE) Network has been a great resource for collaborative education and research activities in Africa to advance training and research capacity in the region. ARISE recently published a series of six manuscripts on COVID-19 disruptions in sub-Saharan Africa. READ MORE.

Nega Assefa, Associate Professor of Reproductive Health, Maternal and Child Health, Haramaya University in Ethiopia, has also been collaborating with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on the ARISE manuscripts with a focus on adolescent health and reproductive health. Similarly, with colleagues in Nigeria and Tanzania, Assefa found that although Harvard colleagues were unable to access their offices, it was not a problem to access his office.

Nthatisi Quella, Director of the Harvard Center for African Studies Africa Office shared that she had to be aware of the constant changing policies on the ground in South Africa as well as with the University and how the University policies would affect country regulations and how the Africa Office in Johannesburg operated.

“Constraints that you might have in Cambridge will not be the same as constraints that one will have in Johannesburg.” – Nthatisi Quella shared that constraints in Johannesburg, in addition to load shedding, when electricity is periodically cut off, and network connectivity issues, also included a series of serious lockdown measures mandated by the government that influenced people working from home.

Image from Professor Kanki's Project on COVID Immunity in Nigeria's Healthcare workers
Image from Professor Kanki's Project on COVID Immunity in Nigeria's Healthcare workers.


Phyllis Kanki, Mary Woodard Lasker Professor of Health Sciences in the Immunology and Infectious Diseases Department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and her team have frequently done training workshops with junior faculty in Africa to learn new techniques. However, due to the pandemic, travel to facilitate training workshops was canceled. Hands-on experience with in-person instruction increases the uptake of the information in experimental lab settings. Although they were able to teach some techniques virtually, there was the additional burden of the cost of shipping materials to collaborators in Nigeria. In addition to losing the educational benefit of training workshops, participation in think tanks, symposiums, and boot camps also become a lost opportunity − as these environments provide networking and research collaboration opportunities that do not always translate in the virtual environment.

“What has suffered more is the educational benefit that people gain from in-person training.” – Phyllis Kanki

Dongqing Wang is a Research Associate in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health working on various topics regarding maternal child and adolescent health with colleagues in Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. For ongoing projects that Wang was involved in, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in delays to certain project activities such as local IRB applications and school visits, which have mostly resumed normality now. In addition to new projects, Wang continued to successfully collaborate with colleagues in sub-Saharan Africa on various secondary data analyses projects during the pandemic.

Unexpected Positive Outcomes

Nthatisi Quella hosted virtual webinars and international conferences over the past year, and she found that the virtual nature of these activities meant that our content could reach an even wider audience with more people engaging in the conversations from the African continent – something the Center for African Studies plans to continue in the future. Many of our distinguished speakers had wider availability to participate in virtual activities, because there was less of a time commitment and no travel logistics to maneuver through.

Professor Kanki’s research project on COVID-19 in Nigeria’s healthcare workers is going very well. Kanki has a very motivated study population, and their team used WhatsApp, notices, and posters to enroll more than 100 healthcare workers in a week which is very successful compared to previous studies.

Embracing Creative Solutions

Elena Hemler, Senior Research Project Coordinator in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has been working on the ARISE Network COVID-19 Survey across sub-Saharan Africa assessing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare providers, adolescents and adult community members. Although Elena and her team have worked with the ARISE Network partners before, for this research project travel between the US and Africa was not possible and therefore the team put in place virtual trainings and new touch points to make sure everyone was on the same page. The team typically conducts face-to-face household surveys, but for this observational study, they tried a new method and conducted the entire study through mobile phones.

Christopher Golden, Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Planetary Health Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been working in Madagascar for 22 years. Although Golden has longstanding roots from collaborating and working in the country, it is still very difficult when he cannot be there in person. Some areas do not have good cell phone service. Golden’s work evolved from documenting how climate change has affected health to creating artificial coral reefs that will increase marine life in the area. At first, this project was designed to use imported PVC piping, but, due to the pandemic and restrictions on imports, Professor Golden’s team found a more creative solution. They used a naturally occurring limestone in Madagascar to develop an entirely new method for creating artificial coral reefs. Using this kind of locally available materials brings benefits to the local community and partners through investment into the local economy and knowledge transfer to the community. Finding creative local solutions is something his team will continue to work on for future projects. Learn more about his work here.

Image of fisherman fixing net
Professor Christopher Golden's Project on Tracking Fish Catch and Fisheries Management. Photo Credit: Hilary Duff


Share some tips for better cross-border collaboration

  • Nega Assefa: “Remember you are ultimately one team working towards one goal.”
  • Christopher Golden: “Create space for regular communication.”
  • Elena Hemler: “In a remote environment, extra communication and frequent check-ins can be really helpful.”
  • Nthatisi Quella: “Be more considerate of all the different environments and different situations.”
  • Dongqing Wang: “Building the rapport makes virtual interactions a lot easier.”