The African Biodiversity Challenge kick starts in Kigali

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The African Biodiversity Challenge was officially launched in Kigali, Rwanda from the 30th of August to the 1st of September. The event was co-hosted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Centre of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management (CoEB), University of Rwanda. Overall, 27 participants attended the meeting, comprising project teams from Ghana, Namibia, Malawi and Rwanda as well as several Steering Committee members. The goals of the meeting were to clarify the competition framework and theory of change; prioritise target datasets; identify relevant end users and policies; revise project team work plans; prepare collaboration agreements, and to build camaraderie. These goals, and more were achieved and the motto of the Challenge was coined: “from silo to self-organisation to self-sustaining”. The highlights of the meeting are listed below:

  • Golden threads: Project Teams came to understand the importance of working across the data-science-policy value chain and ensuring the impact of their mobilisation efforts through engagement with end users. The image of golden threads in their work plans was used to focus thinking so that their projects ‘tell a story’. As both data holding and end-user institutions from all project teams were present, the conceptual links between foundational biodiversity data and policy implementation were more vividly conceptualised. For example, the Director of Research, Environmental Planning and Development from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority expressed her excitement about the project by confirming how important mobilising biodiversity data is for complying with national and international policy mandates and for informing socio-economic initiatives such as identifying new tourism opportunities around wetland-specialist species.
  • Capacity building: Through the group work sessions, training needs were identified for all project teams, which will be incorporated into both a data management training workshop to be held in December and a data-use for decision-making workshop to be held April 2018. Fhatani Ranwashe, resident data specialist from the Biodiversity Information Management (BIM) Unit at SANBI, circulated between the groups to assess the data quality and will be a mentor in the upcoming data management training event, which illustrates the burgeoning community of practice for African biodiversity informatics.
  • Long-term planning: As preparation for developing a national biodiversity informatics roadmap to develop projects for the Challenge and beyond, teams were asked to begin planning a Biodiversity Information Management Forum (BIMF) befitting their national contexts. It was emphasised the BIMFs should work within existing structures and develop organically to suit the context and national agenda of each host country such that they are sustained and have a lasting impact. Teams identified relevant events and conferences that could be co-opted into BIMFs. For example, the Conversation on Conservation annual conference hosted by the Rwanda Development Board will be targeted in 2018 as a BIMF for Rwanda as all the relevant stakeholders are already convened
  • Kwita Izina inspiration: Participants attended the Kwita Izina event, which is named after the ancestral Rwandan baby naming ceremony. The flagship event is to name newborn baby gorillas with the ultimate goal being to help monitor each individual gorilla and group. It was created as a way to generate both local and international awareness about the importance of protecting the gorillas and their habitats in Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains. The high-level profile of the event was certainly confirmed through the attendance of President Paul Kagame as the guest of honour. It was impressive to see how conservation can be used as a cultural asset at the political and economic scale.
  • Events and highlights over the next six months include:
  • Data management training workshop: SANBI is collaborating with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), through its Biodiversity Information for Development (BID) programme, to host a Data Management Training Course from the 4th to 8th of December 2017. The workshop will have a strong focus on the technical aspects of the data mobilization lifecycle: digitization, management and online publishing. Delegates will receive formal certification through the OpenBage system. This workshop will help to develop the African community of practice as several members of GBIF Africa, including SANBI staff, will serve as mentors for the event.
  • GEF Connect All Hands Meeting: The Connect project, which is working to mainstream biodiversity conservation into government policies in Uganda, Ghana and Mozambique, is hosting a stakeholder meeting in Entebbe, Uganda from the 27th November to 1st The meeting will feedback and discuss progress towards project goals and adapt work plans accordingly. This is an ideal opportunity to further develop links between the mobilisation side (ABC and BID) and the mainstreaming side, which is especially relevant for Ghana where the programmes overlap and plans are afoot to host a combined BIMF.
  • Information product training workshop: A follow-up workshop in April 2018 is currently being planned. This workshop will focus on incorporating the mobilised datasets into information products such that they are more digestible to end users. Customised courses will include data paper writing, ecological niche modelling and Red List assessment training.
  • The inception meeting demonstrated that the ABC projects are diverse and innovative and will generate important lessons in biodiversity informatics that will be valuable for the global community. The plurality of datasets, information products and end-user engagements across the teams creates exciting opportunities for collaborations, spin-off work and network building. With guidance from the Steering Committee members, project teams were able to engage more deeply with their projects and recognise the Challenge as part of a long-term strategy to develop biodiversity informatics networks and communities of practice across Africa (“It’s not called a Challenge for nothing” – Vincent Awotwe-Pratt of Conservation Alliance in Ghana). We look forward to this exciting new chapter for the African conservation community.

The African Biodiversity Challenge set to launch with four countries

We are excited to announce that teams from four countries will participate in the African Biodiversity Challenge: Rwanda, Ghana, Malawi and Namibia. Congratulations to these project teams! The African Biodiversity Challenge is funded through a grant from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation and seeks to build capacity in biodiversity informatics and provide incentives for these countries to mobilise as much national biodiversity data of strategic importance as possible through an adjudicated competition that evaluates quantity, quality and fitness for use. To achieve this, these countries will develop cohesive biodiversity informatics networks and strategies in support of their sustainable development agenda. These networks will be supported in the long-term through SANBI assisting in finding funders for spin-off projects, which will sustain the momentum of the work and help establish regional communities of practice for biodiversity informatics. Each country’s project is summarised briefly below:

  • Team Rwanda: led by the Center of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management, University of Rwanda and supported by the Albertine Rift Conservation Society and the Rwanda Environment Management Authority. The team intends to mobilise freshwater biodiversity data hosted by all three institutions, with the aim of incorporating the data into a State of Freshwater Biodiversity Report to be used in both national reports and conservation strategies.
  • Team Ghana: led by Conservation Alliance and supported by the Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, A Rocha and the Ghana Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) node at the University of Ghana. The team will focus on mobilising biodiversity data from Community Resource Management Areas (CREMAs) to help assess the effectiveness of this policy in conserving biodiversity. This project has potential to interlink with the GEF-funded Connect project (coordinated by UNEP-WCMC), which is focussing on mainstreaming conservation into decision-making.
  • Team Malawi: led by the Museums of Malawi and supported by the National Herbarium and Botanical Gardens, the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi and the national GBIF node at the National Commission for Science and Technology. The project team seeks to galvanise biodiversity data mobilisation in the country by digitising specimen collections, as well as data from vegetation survey reports, local journals and environmental impact assessments. The team will work with Environmental Affairs Department to identify relevant information products for the data, such as State of Environment Reports.
  • Team Namibia: led by the Directorate of Scientific Services, Ministry of Environment and Tourism and supported by the Greater Sossusvlei-Namib Landscape (Namibrand Nature Reserve). The team seeks to mobilise biodiversity data contained in wildlife use and trade permits dating back to 1975 as well as radio-tracking data from collared animals to help better inform and manage the wildlife economy. The project has important learning opportunities for the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa who are similarly attempting to establish an online wildlife permitting system.

The Judging Panel was honoured to review and choose between so many high-quality applications, which were all worthy of supporting for their conservation contribution. From 44 initial applications spanning 13 countries, 10 country-level proposals were invited. In this phase, cooperation between multiple partners was emphasised to stimulate the development and self-organisation of a biodiversity network to mobilise the data.  The selected projects are an exciting and diverse mix of biodiversity informatics networks focussing on a wide array of datasets with strategic value for sustainable development and conservation implementation. All project teams have expressed motivation to build biodiversity information facilities in their countries, with strong potential for long-term partnerships to develop a critical mass of biodiversity informatics capacity.

The project will officially commence at the inception meeting, which will be held in Kigali, Rwanda on the 30th and 31st of August. All project teams will convene at this meeting to share their projects in a learning environment and to focus on refining the project strategies, work plans and broader biodiversity informatics vision for their countries. The inception meeting will conclude with an excursion to the Gorilla Naming Ceremony (Kwita Izina), a Rwandan tradition, to be held on the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, which will reiterate the importance of monitoring and mobilise biodiversity data for the benefit of all stakeholders.

The African Biodiversity Challenge: expressions of interest reveal motivated mobilisers!

The African Biodiversity Challenge is off with a bang, with 44 expressions of interest received from 13 countries. This has exceeded our expectations and represents a 15% return rate on the invitations across countries and institutions. The competition is distinct from other funding mechanisms because prize money is awarded at the end of the project with project teams supporting the data mobilisation activities independently. The reason for this is due to our long-term goal to support self-sustaining biodiversity informatics networks that are interdependent, cooperative and functional. The high number of applications received thus reflects the strong desire for conducting biodiversity informatics work despite capacity and logistical barriers.

The applications were generally of very high-quality, with applicants understanding the aims of the competition, identifying critical target datasets for mobilisation and pinpointing specific national policies in which the data could be mainstreamed. Many of the projects were hugely innovative and interdisciplinary, ranging from informing zoonotic disease transmission policy from wildlife faecal samples to using Lepidoptera data as indicator species for conservation and agriculture. This is hugely encouraging for biodiversity conservation on the continent.

While we would like to support all applicants, this inaugural launch of the project seeks to support project teams from three countries. The Steering Committee approved 26 applications to proceed to the second round. On the 8th of May, the approved applicants from 10 countries were invited to submit full proposals. Given the project’s focus on network building, we requested that the applicants work together to combine elements of their individual applications into a unified full proposal (but also provided the option to provide full proposals independently). Larger consortia (comprised of diverse partners) are more likely to perform better in the competition due to the increased likelihood of mobilising more policy-relevant data. Again, initial responses from the countries have been encouraging, with several confirming their intention to form consortia and submit a joint proposal. We look forward to finalising the three countries to participate in the ABC competition.