Message from the Director: Leveraging the power of academia to respond to Africa’s challenges

December 14, 2020

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

December is a natural time for reflection, as the year comes to an end and we wind down another semester. Undeniably, this has been a year unlike any other.

Despite the challenges we have all faced, I am greatly encouraged by the continued progress and achievements of the Harvard Center for African Studies. We continued our work with the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) through our ongoing Africa & COVID-19 webinar series, where we have explored not just the health aspects but also economic and societal impacts of the pandemic. Today, I wanted to reflect on the conversation we had during one of our recent webinars focused on the challenges and opportunities faced by Higher Education in Africa. We heard from panelists based at universities as far north as Tunisia and as far south as South Africa, as well as from the World Bank in Washington DC. The discussion encapsulated many of the challenges and opportunities that face higher education in Africa that are globally related to infrastructure for virtual learning, capacity building of instructors, limitations due to regulatory provisions, cultural sensitivities, and ethical and legal challenges of digitization. Private and well-resourced universities were able to manage the transition more smoothly, whereas many public institutions faced structural challenges.

The conversation was a reminder that COVID has only exacerbated many of the challenges we have faced long before, particularly as it relates to social and economic inequalities and access to education. It is for these reasons that institutions like CAS have a role in leveraging the power of academia to respond to the pandemic, together with many friends and collaborators on the continent and beyond. Recently, thanks to the generosity of the Motsepe Foundation, we launched a new faculty funding opportunity in partnership with the Vice Provost for Research and Vice Provost for International Affairs. The Motsepe Presidential Research Accelerator Fund for Africa will support projects concentrated on advancing key challenges and opportunities facing Africa that focus on science, technology, and innovation to develop solutions to intractable problems.

We continue our commitment to serving and supporting our students, our primary constituents, and future leaders. This Fall semester, we provided support for more than a dozen students pursuing research projects related to Africa. Our funding opportunities prioritized commitments for faculty and students whose work includes collaboration with Africa-based research institutions. Our diverse pool of awards included studies on the impact of COVID-19 on healthcare systems in Uganda, schooling and youth unemployment in South Africa, as well as climate-resilience and urban farming in Nigeria. More details about the student projects funded can be found below, and we look forward to sharing outcomes of these projects in future editions of this newsletter.

In fulfilling our mandate as a university-wide center, our annual Folorunso Alakija Distinguished Lecture on Religion and Public Life in Africa was held on Thursday, November 12, featuring Professor Simeon Ilesanmi from Wake Forest University as this year’s keynote speaker. The lecture brings us closer to Harvard Divinity School, which just launched its first new master’s program in fifty years on the topic of Religion and Public Life. The program is indicative of our growing presence across the university where our faculty affiliates have doubled to close to 100, representing every school and discipline of study at Harvard.

As we look ahead to the Spring semester, our programming and events will continue to be offered in a virtual format. We will start a new monthly webinar series on Africa Beyond the Headlines, addressing contemporary issues including challenges related to recent political protest movements, and highlighting advances in sustainable development. Stay tuned to for the line-up for these activities. Additionally, mark your calendars for Wednesday, April 21 through Thursday, April 22, as we will host a two-day conference on Africa’s Water Opportunity: Science, Sustainability, and Solutions, exploring health, climate change, migration, and security in Africa through the lens of water.

With the end of the year just around the corner, we invite you to keep the Center for African Studies in mind for your year-end giving. The work we do—including our public programming, our support for student and faculty research on Africa, and our collaborations and partnerships with Africa’s research institutions—would not be possible without the generosity of our supporters around the world.  As I look back over this past year, we can all be proud that CAS continues to be a resource for our faculty, students, and alumni as we work together to advance the scholarship of African Studies at Harvard. Indeed, it is because of these efforts that our partner institutions in Africa as well as African voices and perspectives more broadly, have an ever-greater role at the center of the scholarship taking place across Harvard University.

I wish you all a warm holiday season and a brighter new year.

Warm regards,




Interim Oppenheimer Faculty Director
Harvard University Center for African Studies

Richard Saltonstall Professor of Population Sciences
Professor of Epidemiology, Nutrition and Global Health
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Tel : 617-432-2086
Twitter: @wafaie_fawzi