Enhancing Early Childhood Development and Foundational Learning through African-Led Research

In celebrating the African Union Year of Education (AU YoE), the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and Education Sub-Saharan Africa (ESSA) unite to spotlight the power of research in advancing the agenda of early skill acquisition in Africa. The aim is not only addressing the acute learning crisis but also building a robust knowledge foundation to inform sustainable solutions.

Converging in Nairobi: A Milestone Workshop

In a significant gathering last October, 53 experts from 21 countries discussed Early Childhood Development (ECD) and Foundational Learning (FL) challenges and opportunities. The workshop was co-organized by ESSA and the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge. It aimed at advancing multidisciplinary research output among Africa-based researchers while improving their quality and agency to work on the two thematic areas.

The State of Africa-Led Research

A deep dive into the current landscape revealed:

  1. Publication Scarcity: An analysis conducted by the REAL Centre in 2021 from publications in the African Education Research Database (AERD) showed that the research output of SSA researchers in ECD was very low. In addition, there is a wide discrepancy in terms of the number of publications, while most of the studies focus on the status (challenges and problems) rather than on the solutions. Similarly, between 2020 and 2022, 313 studies on FL were published in Africa, with 43% not relevant to the SSA context, and a notable scarcity of relevant publications in French.
  2. Publication Disparity: Even the low research output was unevenly distributed across the sub-themes in ECD. Using the Nurturing care Framework lens, publications are skewed towards Health (874), while Education (52) and Play (39) lag far behind. In addition, a minority of studies focused on equity and inclusion, with 26% addressing poverty and just 3% considering disability. Among FL researchers, common areas of exploration included household factors associated with student learning and African languages, with the least attention given to education policy, enrolment, and nutrition, among others. Additionally, disability was included in only 7% publications.
  3. Gender issue: Female African researchers are highly underrepresented in the publications, accounting for only 24% of the searchable publications. This finding sparked a heated response, considering that a majority of the ECD educators are female. It highlighted the unique barriers faced by female scholars on the continent in getting published in peer-reviewed academic journals that are captured in the AERD.

Exploring the Definition and Impact of Africa-led Research

Defining what truly makes research "Africa-led" sparked lively discussions between: diaspora researchers in the North, non-African researchers in Africa, and local African academics. The consensus? Africa-led research encompasses a deeper affiliation with the continent's academic and institutional landscapes, moving beyond mere personal identity.

Breaking Down Barriers

The workshop outlined that Africa-based researchers face four crucial obstacles.

  1. Funding: 44% of SSA-based scholars had not received funding, whereas 39% relied on international support. This funding gap affects research volume and quality, challenging scholars who balance teaching and consultancy with scarce research time. Possible solutions:
    • Enhance support through targeted direct funding to researchers, like joint grants and regional funds.
    • Encourage researchers to proactively design and pitch authentic projects to funders.
    • Promote cross-generational mentorship to nurture upcoming research talents.
  2. Recognition and visibility: evidence shows these researchers are published less in search-engine indexed media, not due to a lack of writing but due to visibility barriers. Discussion moved from focusing solely on the quality of publication venues to ensuring access and fair evaluation of work. Instances were cited where editorial boards unfamiliar with SSA contexts often dismiss or underestimate African perspectives as lesser in quality. Possible solutions:
    • Address power asymmetry in academic recognition
    • Shift focus from just publication prestige to accessibility and fair evaluation.
    • Support African researchers to publish internationally and advocate for inclusion of Africa-based journals globally.
    • Emphasize research mentorship and propose a global repository for Africa-based research.
  3. Research-based advocacy: There is a scant focus of Africa-led studies on answers for education policy and practice, and a gap between research outputs and policy implementation. Possible solutions:
    • Allocate resources for research communication to address the disconnect between Africa-led research and practical policy applications.
    • Advocate for the expansion of networks and platforms to unite researchers and policymakers like the Education Evidence for Action (EE4A) in Kenya and the Pan-Africanist Unlocking Data initiative, jointly established by Zizi Afrique, Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA), EBASE, Edtech Hub, and the University of Malawi, as well as ADEA’s multiple platforms.
  4. Collaboration Among African Researchers: 37% of studies are intra-country collaborations within SSA, while 35% partner with global counterparts. However, only 6% reflect cross-country collaborations. Possible solutions:
    • Target networking among researchers on the continent
    • Increase funding for cross-country research initiatives.

Charting the Path Forward: ADEA and ESSA Partnership

ADEA is highly committed to early skill acquisition. Its Inter-Country Quality Node on ECD (ICQN-ECD), highlights its pivotal role in advancing ECD initiatives. Additionally, FL remains a key strategic focus, evidenced by ADEA leading a substantial mapping project across 15 African countries and discussions that centre on the importance of FL data during its High-Level Dialogue Forums with policy makers. This endeavour goes beyond identifying critical research gaps. It is about generating knowledge that proposes a clear roadmap for future research and interventions, shifting focus from prevailing challenges to actionable solutions.

ADEA’s efforts are crucial in mobilizing a diverse range of stakeholders — from researchers to policymakers and funders — to pave the way for evidence-based and data-driven educational reforms. The partnership between ESSA and ADEA is vital, aiming to develop and execute a comprehensive research agenda on ECD and FL, which is essential for addressing the challenges identified by the participants in the workshop and ultimately tackling the continent’s acute learning crisis.

Call to Action

This blog serves as a call to stakeholders to prioritize Africa-led ECD and FL research in SSA. Through collaboration and support to a knowledge-rich research agenda, together we can make a significant impact on the continent's education as we celebrate the AU YoE.