The African Biodiversity Challenge shines a light for sustainable development
10 May 2019
Ghana has been awarded the gold prize in the inaugural African Biodiversity Challenge (ABC), followed by Malawi with silver and both Rwanda and Namibia claiming bronze prizes. The ABC was a competition between teams from each of the four countries to digitise, format and publish as many policy-relevant datasets as possible from a wide range of sources. Teams were evaluated on the quantity and quality of the mobilised records as well as providing evidence of the data being incorporated into information products or being used in decision-making. Overall, the teams managed to publish 47,644 unique records to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) or their own national web-based platforms, registered 5 new data publishing institutions on the GBIF and organised national Biodiversity Information Management Forums (BIMFs) to raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity informatics and provide a space for long-term partnerships to be forged. All of this was achieved using pre-existing institutional resources and cooperation between the institutions comprising each team. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) provided logistics support and organised training events for the teams. The success of each team in self-organising and overcoming initial barriers shows what’s possible for biodiversity informatics on the continent.
The prize-giving ceremony for ABC was hosted by CSIR – Science and Technology Policy Research Institute (STEPRI) in Ghana on the 28th of March. The event was attended by 65 people and revealed high-level support for biodiversity informatics in Ghana as Mrs. Lovina Owusu, Chief Director of the Ministry for Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI), presented the prizes to the teams and articulated the importance of biodiversity data in shaping the sustainable development agenda in a statement read on behalf of the Minister of MESTI, Prof. Frimpong Boateng. The need for biodiversity informatics was summed up by the Minister in saying “We need a globally competitive natural resource management system that can enhance research and innovation, inform planning and policy development as well as assist in decision-making”. The event also generated several national news articles (which can be found here and here), again highlighting the importance of the work to society.
The teams published a wide variety of data from across all data classes, including 3 resources metadata, 16 checklists, 26 occurrence datasets and 14 sampling-event datasets. The sources of these data were diverse, including specimen collections, student dissertations, field survey reports, radio-collar tracking, and historical field observations published in journals. Each team mapped potential policy uses of the data and identified specific end users with whom to forge partnerships to mainstream the data into decision-making. For example, the historical occurrence data on insects, birds and mammals from the Department of Museums and Monuments and Wildlife and Environment Society of Malawi can help to inform national Red List priority assessments for pollinator species in collaboration with a broader project being conducted by the Department of Environmental Affairs. Similarly, the data on useful plant species (such as food crops, traditional medicine and fuel crops) mobilised by National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens (NHBG) will be packaged into national Red List assessments to set sustainable use guidelines. One of the legacy outcomes of the Malawi geo-referencing effort is the development of the first draft of a Gazetteer for Malawi, which will assist in further data mobilisation efforts across the country. Additionally, through the ABC competition, the Malawi GBIF node hosted at National Commission for Science and Technology managed to revamp its infrastructure for publishing data leading to the first published datasets hosted by a Malawian institution.
Rwanda also published their first national datasets to GBIF through the ARBIMS platform hosted the Albertine Rift Conservation Society (ARCOS). Here, the Centre of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management (CoEB), University of Rwanda published two dataset pertaining to freshwater biodiversity: the first contained occurrence data digitised from student theses, and the second was occurrence data held in inventory reports by the Rwanda Environment Management Authority. Additionally, ARCOS continued to publish sample-event datasets as part of their Integrated Landscapes Assessment and Monitoring (ILAM) programme. These datasets and others will ultimately provide the currency of the freshwater biodiversity information system (FBIS) currently being planned by CoEB as part of a JRS planning grant. Here, south-south learning is in full force where, through help from SANBI, the FBIS designs from the Freshwater Research Centre of South Africa is helping to shape the plans for CoEB, thereby saving resources and ensuring systems are interoperable and scalable.
Ghana published a wide variety of datasets useful in developing agro-ecological policies; managing Community Resource and Environment Management Areas (CREMAs) (a policy managed under the Forestry Commission); informing invasive alien species mitigation strategies; and identifying desirable and undesirable tree species under the Cocoa Forest Initiative (CFI). Conservation Alliance, on behalf of the Resource Management Support Centre of the Forestry Commission, published 8 datasets comprising fauna and flora data (including invasive alien species) in the Ankasa-Bia-Krokusua ecological corridor (a region of high biodiversity value) and tree species recorded in cocoa plantations. Both Conservation Alliance and A Rocha published data on biodiversity occurring in CREMAs located at Elluokrom and around Mole National Park. A Rocha also made available a Bryophyte dataset from Atewa Forest originally collected by Hodgetts et al. (2016), which revealed 58 species new to Ghana. These data are thus valuable in defining Key Biodiversity Areas in Ghana. Additionally, the Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute (PGRRI) from CSIR published several important datasets on root and tuber species, legume species and cereal crop wild relative species.
The Namibian Team populated an existing national data platform, the Environmental Information Service of Namibia, with a large dataset on radio-collared animal movement from Greater Sossusvlei-Namib Landscape association that can help to inform fencing policies and landscape-scale management, as well as several resources metadata (with potential to mobilise c. 240,000 records) from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism documenting aerial surveys conducted on protected areas and community-owned conservancies as well as wildlife utilisation data from hunting permits, all of which can help inform wildlife economy policies relating to the creation and management of wildlife-based socio-economic systems.
Some teams managed have already managed to document use cases of the data. The Ghana team provided evidence that the data have been used by consultants to identify the invasive species Broussoentia papyrifera in the Bosomkese, Pamu Berekum and Goa Shelterbelt forest reserves, and to identify which shade-tree species should be used in cocoa farms to improve ecological health through the BOAME Cocoa Scheme; and CREMA managers have used the data to inform management plans around Mole National Park, particularly in recording indicator species such as the Wild Water Buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), and to support the creation of new CREMAs. The CoEB thesis dataset has also been used to model the spread of the invasive species Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia) on a continental scale. Further use-case examples will be documented throughout 2019 and presented as case studies.
While the ABC was organised around a data mobilisation competition, its ultimate goal was to create functional biodiversity informatics networks and spark a sustained national conversation on how to coordinate data-science-policy value chains. The BIMFs were used as a vehicle to achieve these outcomes where an average of 34 stakeholders were convened at each national event with a roughly 50:50 split between institutions classified as data holders or end users. These events were successful in raising awareness of the latent supply of national data sources and the immediate demand for the data by various cross-sectoral governmental institutions. The real test will be in sustaining the BIMF by finding an institutional home for it in each country and demonstrating its value to the broader community. As the Director of CSIR – Science and Technology Policy Research Institute (STEPRI) in Ghana, George Essegbey, said “We have embarked on a journey which we are just starting and I am hoping that we are all truly committed and that the vision of the forum will come to pass”.
There have already been several promising outcomes in each country that point towards being able to sustain the BIMF and thus continue the momentum of biodiversity informatics work in each country. In Ghana, the BIMF has been used to foster a tightknit formal collaboration between the ABC data providing institutions and the Ghana Connect project team. The Connect project, coordinated by UNEP-WCMC, seeks to mainstream biodiversity information into government decision-making. In Ghana, it is spearheaded by the National Biosafety Authority (NBA). The project is currently in the process of developing biodiversity information products that can be incorporated into the agricultural sector. Many of the datasets mobilised by ABC are relevant to the agricultural sector and the formal collaboration between the ABC and Connect will ensure that there is a direct pipeline to feed the mobilized datasets into the appropriate information product, thereby demonstrating the value of making data accessible for decision-making. More generally, both the ABC and Connect projects have the potentially to directly contribute to the implementation of the Planting for Food and Jobs project (2017-2020) under the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
Rwanda has also made important strides in formalising the BIMF structure and executing its biodiversity informatics roadmap. Engagement between CoEB and the Ministry of Environment (MoE), led MoE to host the first BIMF in October 2018 and to formally promulgate a BIMF Task Force, comprised of 7 institutions, to assist in executing the plan to build a biodiversity information facility (BIF) in Rwanda. The Task Force held its inception meeting on the 16th of April at MoE and will develop a concept note for the BIF to be approved at the next BIMF in September 2019. The plans by CoEB to develop an FBIS will naturally tie into this broader endeavour.
The Malawi ABC team has seen success in partnering with the Environmental Affairs Department (EAD) to host the BIMF. Here, EAD is spearheading the Mapping Biodiversity Priorities project, which seeks to produce a national ecosystem-level assessment. The partnership has been fruitful in tying together primary biodiversity data and spatial data into similar conceptual frameworks for centralization and mainstreaming. Plans are afoot to host another combined BIMF in May 2019. During the first BIMF in 2018, it was identified that the National Biodiversity Steering Committee (NBSC), which fits into the Cabinet Committee on Natural Resources and Environment, and is chaired by Dr. Zacharia Magombo at NHBG, is best suited to provide a mechanism for sustaining the BIMF. A task force to assess the feasibility of integrating the BIMF into NBSC structures has been proposed.
The Namibian team hosted a successful stakeholder meeting, which identified the Environmental Information Service of Namibia as an existing platform that could be used to serve biodiversity data, thus avoiding the need for MET to invest in building its own platform. Stakeholders also identified several institutions that have datasets ready to be published to EIS if training is received and the Namibia University of Science and Technology could take on the role of providing capacity development in the fields of data management and analysis. The role of MET would then become to convene the BIMF and coordinate stakeholders in such a way as to answer key policy questions through the data. The establishment of a biodiversity data unit within MET, which would form the stakeholder engagement hub, is currently being investigated.
Congratulations must go to all teams involved in the competition for being so willing to participate in a challenging but rewarding project. The ABC project shows it is possible to conduct data mobilisation and mainstreaming on existing resources. One of the most important lessons from ABC was the power of working through partnerships to achieve seemingly independent goals. Working through teams and partnerships also instilled camaraderie, agency and purpose. Overall, 13 institutions comprising 21 individuals (of which 17 were trained in data management and 8 in information product development) across the four countries were directly involved in the competition, with the potential to expand the work to many other identified institutions. ABC can be thought of as the ‘thin end of the wedge’ on the journey to achieving a self-sustaining biodiversity informatics network. In 2019, SANBI will work with each team to implement their road maps using the prize money from the competition. SANBI will also assist each team to find additional resources by developing spin-off projects that will sustain the impact of the project tin 2020 and beyond. The ABC project was funded by the JRS Biodiversity Foundation and is set to complete in December 2019.
 Hodgetts NG, Essilfie MK, Adu-Gyamfi A, Akom E, Kumadoh J, Opoku J. 2016. Bryophytes of Atewa Forest, Eastern Region, Ghana. Journal of Bryology 38:211–222
 Obiakara MC, Fourcade Y. 2018. Climatic niche and potential distribution of Tithonia diversifolia (Hemsl.) A. Gray in Africa. PLOS ONE 13:e0202421
The African Biodiversity Challenge kick starts in Kigali
22 November 2017
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 was 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 bourgeoning 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 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 feed back 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
21 August 2017
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 mobilising biodiversity data for the benefit of all stakeholders.
The African Biodiversity Challenge: expressions of interest reveal motivated mobilisers!
24 May 2017
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.