This feature series will spotlight individual member’s accomplishments and contributions towards achieving NIERA’s vision.
NIERA’s Program Manager, Jennifer Nyakinya sat down with Dr. Samuel Oji Oti, the founding Secretary-General of the network to reflect on the past, present and future of NIERA’s work of placing demand and relevance at the heart of evidence generation and use.
You are one of the founding-members of NIERA. How was NIERA born?
Dr. Anthony Mveyange, Professor Amos Njuguna, and I, had completed the EASST fellowship programme at the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) at UC Berkeley and were thinking about how to create a community of practice for Impact Evaluation researchers on the continent. The EASST fellowship program provides East African researchers with rigorous training in Impact Evaluation methods. Now, early 2015, the three of us had been invited by the World Bank to facilitate Impact Evaluation trainings for some of its clients. We realized there was a need not only to advance the use of Impact Evaluation in decision making but also to build the technical capacities of people who were interested in Impact Evaluation. We immediately decided to tap into the unique skills that alumni of EASST fellowship have to address this gap in a systematic way. A few years later and with generous seed funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the idea of establishing NIERA came to fruition. It’s been a great journey building the network, staffing the secretariat, and attracting more funding from the Hewlett Foundation and other funders as we continue to grow the network in our own way.
What is NIERA’s value proposition and niche?
The Network’s niche is our ability to contextualize scientific evidence needs. Our members have a deep understanding of the context and policy environment where we work. We also have relationships with policy makers and other stakeholders that we have developed in our individual capacities and increasingly as a network. Building and leveraging on those relationships, we can understand the evidence needs of policy makers and other key stakeholders in various development disciplines and, design and co-create with them Impact Evaluation research projects that respond to their own specific needs. This approach inspired our Demand-Driven Research Initiative funded by the Hewlett Foundation that’s about responding to a very clear demand for decision-focused evaluations that informs specific decision/ practices and focuses on specific research policy levels at different context that we are familiar with and have expertise.
Why is it important for NIERA to be demand driven?
It’s imperative for us to be demand driven despite the pressure to respond to pre-defined research priorities from international funders. Ideally, funders need to find out what the local evidence-demand is and build their funding decisions around that. However, what we see is that there is generally a top-down approach by funders when it comes to research prioritization. We believe that that the time has come for a more bottom-up approach whereby the end users of research play a more significant role in defining and prioritizing international development initiatives and programs. We believe that this approach is more likely to be responsive to local evidence needs in Africa.
Outside your work in Impact Evaluation, you also host a podcast on digital health. Tell us more.
I’ve taken particular interest in the role that technology can play in health. When I was a public health researcher, some of the projects I was involved in very low resource settings across Africa included some component of digital health. Seeing the potential of those projects to increase access to health care for people who ordinarily wouldn’t have access sowed the seed of my interest to explore the intersection between digital tech and health. At the height of the Covid-19 lockdown, I spent a great amount of my free time listening to podcasts on a variety of topics and I wondered if there’s any podcast that specifically showcases digital health or health tech innovations in Africa. I couldn’t find any. So I made the decision to launch a bi-weekly podcast known as MedxTek Africa in June 2021 featuring innovators in the African digital health space.
Do you see any role for Impact Evaluation in digital health?
From what I have observed, digital health innovators do not often consider how impact evaluation methods might be integrated into testing the effectiveness of the innovations. And I think that’s a gap where networks like NIERA and like-minded organizations can add value to the digital health and health tech innovation space. We can help digital health startups design rigorous evaluations that will show the evidence they need in support of their products or services.
And finally, what are the future plans for your podcast?
I intend to continue giving a platform for African digital health innovators beyond what they would ordinarily have, to showcase their amazing work and amplify their voices. With the growing interest from private investors, venture capitalists and private equity firms in the tech space and especially in Africa, funding opportunities are huge but competition is fierce, and innovators need partners to support them along the way. Like I often say in my podcast, if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together.
The Network of Impact Evaluation Researchers in Africa was formed in 2018, by the alumni of the East Africa Social Science Translation (EASST) Collaborative (a multi-institution research network administered by the Centre for Effective Global Action (CEGA) hosted at University of California, Berkeley. NIERA works with 41 members across Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda who are EASST Fellows, to achieve its mission to advance Decision-Focused Evaluations of development programs through capacity building, evidence generation and policy engagement.