A Journey Called Digital Earth Africa
Updated: Mar 11
Over the past 4 years, it has been a distinct pleasure working with stakeholders and colleagues across Africa and the world to make earth observations more useful and accessible for Africa in addressing national development priorities and sustainable development challenges. From brokering a solution with partners leading to the launch of the Africa Regional Data Cube (ARDC) in 2018, to developing the business case leading to the launch of Digital Earth Africa (DE Africa) in 2019, D4DInsights has played a key role in advancing the establishment, strategy and operations of this program.
The DE Africa Establishment Team is led by Managing Director, Adam Lewis, and the program is funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust (Helmsley Charitable Trust). DE Africa is working towards being fully established and institutionalized in Africa and guided by an independent governance mechanism through a Technical Advisory Committee made up largely of experts from across the continent.
Based on my experience with DE Africa and other similar programs I have worked on around the world, the following offers my reflection and some guidance on what it takes to build a technology-focused program with the right enabling mechanisms to ensure its adoption, sustainability and ownership. As you will see, these building blocks focus more on institutional factors because while the technical issues can be difficult, getting people and organizations to believe, collaborate, engage and use what is being developed can be far more complex and leads to the greatest reward.
Be demand-driven. In June 2018, Phase I of DE Africa started to develop the business case for the program by conducting stakeholder consultations across a range of countries and organizations in Africa. The intent was to ensure that there was a need for a scaled-up approach for an Open Data Cube (ODC) infrastructure for the continent and better understand the needs, priorities and potential use cases for providing earth observation products and services. While earth observations are readily available from a number of sources, we wanted to ensure that we were not looking at this from a supply view, but rather, matching up the demand to that supply through developing this solution and program. Note, understanding common challenges exist across countries (e.g. water availability, agriculture, deforestation, land degradation, etc.), a core value proposition for DE Africa is the ability to scale products and services serving the entire continent.
Build high-level political support. To develop buy-in across countries and institutions across Africa on the importance and value of DE Africa to support policy and action against key development challenges, consultation with high-level political officials was necessary to bring them onboard as champions of the program. This further supported alignment with policy agendas and sent a signal to countries and institutions for collaboration and cooperation. This support was key to the launch of the program and continues to be an important element of the governance framework for DE Africa adding to the overall ownership and sustainability objectives of the program. .
Institutionalize. The long-term sustainability of the program can only happen when ownership of the program is within the hands of institutions based in Africa. While different institutional models were tested, a distributed operational model that leverages the expertise of regional institutions based across Africa as implementing partners with a central Program Management Office (PMO) was adopted. The PMO ultimately leads and coordinates the overall program. By adopting such an approach, ownership and implementation of the program gets extended to Africa-based institutions allowing DE Africa to also align to existing and complementary programs and initiatives. This approach “regionalizes” the program ensuring needs that are unique to the diverse geographies and cultures across the continent can be considered as part of the work program leveraging the knowledge specific to those regions.
Develop a top-down/bottom-up approach to governance. In the lead up to the launch of the ARDC, and with the support of the Government of Kenya, developing high-level political buy-in on the importance of earth observations as one tool to support national development priorities was critical for broader country adoption across the five countries. More importantly, this also led to identifying the broader demand for such a solution across the continent. It was important for the sustainability and buy-in of the program to ensure that this level of engagement was embedded into the DE Africa program, but only if we also ensured those institutions closest to the needs and working with countries are also included. As a result, a governance framework was developed where the Technical Advisory Committee (bottom-up) included regional institutions, space agencies, governments, academia, private sector and civil society that guided the development of the DE Africa work program, products and services. The Advisory Board is to include high-level officials and representatives from governments, private sector and continental and globally oriented organizations that can build political will, amplify, connect and build sustainability of the program.
Create a multi-stakeholder approach. To maximize the use and impact of earth observations to drive policy, decision-making and action, engagement needs to happen across government, private sector and civil society. This level of engagement supports the development of a data ecosystem approach where needs and priorities are better understood across a range of users increasing the potential for impact through further stakeholder engagement, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Develop a data ecosystem. Embedded within the multi-stakeholder approach is the motivation to deliver additional impact when earth observation data are combined with data from other data communities like national statistics, big data, citizen-generated data, drones, IoT and more. This opens up the potential for new use cases, downstream applications and innovations leading to the potential for increased entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses and jobs. As articulated in a report by the World Economic Forum, open earth observation data has the potential for large economic return and socio-economic development across Africa. Data across sectors, interoperability, partnerships and standards serve as some of the key ingredients for enabling this ecosystem.
Co-design. Products and services made available by the program should not only be responsive to the needs across the continent, but should also leverage the expertise and experience through past and current projects implemented by other institutions. By creating a co-design process, representatives from partner organizations are able to work in parallel with the DE Africa technical team in designing products and services further ensuring outcomes have greater potential for alignment and uptake.
Develop a holistic capacity development program. Earth observation data is highly technical and still not well understood by many users and decision makers. Users of these data and information range from remote sensing scientists to GIS analysts to developers, journalists and government officials. As a result, a capacity development program needs to be developed that is not just one-off technical training sessions, but inclusive of continuous training, on-the-job and embedded training, and capacity development and outreach that includes having government officials, journalists and the lay person better understand how and what they can do with these data and information. Fundamentally, we want earth observations to be streamlined so that, for example, a small-holder farmer can use the insights from these data to better manage their agricultural fields, or a government official has better information to guide policy development.
Develop a plan for sustainable financing. While generous funding was made possible thanks to DFAT and the Helmsley Charitable Trust, we knew that additional funding from international sources would be required to further sustain the program. Therefore, we developed a sustainable funding approach that also recognized that true sustainability of the program will happen only when countries receive direct benefit from DE Africa products and services. DE Africa has to become an indispensable tool for achieving national development and sustainability priorities such that investment into the program can eventually shift to direct investment from the continent itself. As you know, development financing can be a complicated space, and to truly achieve ownership of the program in Africa, funding sources need to eventually shift to Africa itself.
Putting this framework into practice resulted in wins, progress and many lessons learned along the way. While there is much work still to be done, I’m proud of the work we’ve done thus far to have DE Africa well positioned for success. 2021 will be an important year for the program as all the pieces are in place to fully establish the program in Africa including the governance framework, implementing partnerships to support operations, GEO Trust Fund, the establishment of the Program Management Office in Africa, release of new core data and continental data services, and the development of a capacity building program. Key to the success of the program will be the onboarding of implementing partners, hiring up of staff in Africa, and ensuring ownership of the program is placed in Africa aligned to existing institutions and initiatives.
I hope these guidelines as applied to Digital Earth Africa offer some useful tips for starting up programs of a similar scope and scale. I've often seen programs focus more on the technical aspects (which is important) without fully considering how that product will be developed incorporating local knowledge and expertise and accounting for politics and culture so that it is picked up and used. People and institutions can be a challenge, but the funnest part of doing this work is building relationships and gaining trust - you have to have this in place to see impact being delivered through the product. So with that being said, there are several key guiding principles that I can't stress strongly enough:
Build trust. Engage, engage and then engage some more. I can’t say that strongly enough. Take the time to build relationships with your stakeholders, leaders and champions. Listen to them, and I mean, really listen to them. Understand their perspective, what their needs and priorities are, what it takes for them to be successful, and how they can be directly involved in the work that you are doing so that knowledge (both ways) can be transferred. Be humble - you have as much to learn from them as they do from you. With the proper level of continuous engagement, responsiveness and addressing key challenges and requests, trust between both parties will be built that serves as the foundation for the whole program.
Institutionalize early on. One of the biggest lessons learned from this program is to not underestimate the time required to institutionalize a program within an existing institution. Understand the requirements for the various agreements and pathway for institutionalizing the program early on. Build a strong relationship, trust and cadence with the partner organization and understand the protocol, culture and dynamics for getting to an agreement. This will build stronger buy-in right from the onset of the program and save from any confusion about the intent, geopolitics and personal agendas. Furthermore, it will more readily support the sustainability of the program and more quickly develop the trust and relationships needed for a successful program.
Create strong accountability. Develop a strong governance mechanism that holds you accountable to the work program, goals and objectives. To do so, set up a culture of constructive criticism, while also celebrating successes. Be willing to admit where mistakes were made, because they will be, as long as you document the process, openly discuss and learn from it. Ensure that a pragmatic monitoring and evaluation framework is put into place that allows for measuring progress, communicating this progress in a logical framework, and getting feedback from your governance bodies, team and stakeholders. Holding yourself accountable will only lead to further engagement and trust being established with your stakeholders.
Be transparent. Be open. Developing programs at this scale is not easy and communication needs to work both ways. Transparency will not only lead to trust, but also allow for interventions and guidance from others in the region who can further inform and help steer the program in the right direction. Without transparency, and especially when the program is funded from international sources, the perception can quickly become that there is an agenda not based on the interests of the region the program is meant to serve.
It has been an absolute honor to support the establishment of this program in Africa alongside so many that have made this program possible. There are countless people and organizations to thank, but none of this could be done without the support of countries, organizations, colleagues, and stakeholders across Africa. I must thank the Establishment Team at Geoscience Australia for their commitment, support and hard work in establishing this program. There are many international companies, organizations and partners that have also supported this program in very substantial ways. I would love to name all of these people and organizations, but this paper would get very long and you know who you are! Thanks to all of these contributions and effort, the world will have much to learn from Digital Earth Africa. I believe this program is a good example of scaling up an approach for deploying technology grounded in the right enabling mechanisms to ensure ownership and sustainability. We are only at the beginning of fully understanding and mainstreaming the potential of earth observations to better our world, create innovation and opportunity, and improve our everyday lives and decisions. We are one step closer to a “Digital Earth’.