DECOLONISING KNOWLEDGE: icipe takes a stand

Thought Leadership Column by the Director General, Dr Segenet Kelemu

(Click here to read the French Version)

Over the recent past, a movement around the concept of Decolonising Knowledge has gained force across academic and international networks. The decolonial ideology is not new and in Africa, the philosophy was most prominent in the 1960s –1980s among postcolonial theorists, radical pan-Africanists and literary giants agitating for Decolonising the Mind, meaning liberation through endogenous, Africa-centred knowledge production.

The ideology gained new impetus in 2015 through a crusade led by South African students on Decolonising the University, which rapidly spread across the globe as a call to liberate curriculum and cultures in institutions of higher learning. This campaign spurred numerous others like decolonising the city, diets, architecture and even Hollywood.

The coordinates of decolonial thinking are contestations of institutions and structures of power that sustain relations of exploitation, inequalities, injustices, intersubjective, domination, repression and dispossession. Specifically, Decolonising Knowledge interrogates, challenges and aims to dismantle hierarchical models in systems of knowing resulting from political, economic and socio-cultural global inequalities.

Within the Decolonising knowledge debate, icipe occupies a unique practical and epistemic space as an African yet global institution; one that thrives on the ethos of equal, respective partnerships; and one that ascribes to the principles of the international scientific community while remaining committed to transformation of livelihoods across Africa. We believe that the goals of knowledge decolonisation are necessary, overdue and attainable.

Why now?

Ongoing global challenges like the need to accelerate attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, have strengthened global awareness that ‘knowledge is power’. These issues  have also amplified longstanding cracks in international research and knowledge systems. And there is renewed consciousness that a  just, equitable, peaceful and prosperous world will not be possible without inclusive processes that draw on the intellectual capacity, talent, as well as desires and aspirations of people, especially the most vulnerable. This is happening against the background of a world that is growing weary of inequities and injustices, and the appreciation of movements of protest and more importantly, those of solidarity.

Points of contention

In Africa, Decolonising Knowledge requires contemplation and remedies of two sets of factors. The first category consists of functional aspects like how the research agenda is shaped, whose interests the research is conceived to serve and how it is conducted; who owns the knowledge produced, who has access to it and who benefits from it. The second group is composed of conceptual or epistemic aspects like the hegemonic notions that dictate what counts as knowledge, who legitimises it, who rewards it, and the remunerations that are granted, and to whom.

What needs to change?

From a living laboratory to a site of unity

Africa is an intriguing continent that has long fascinated researchers, innovators and investors alike, earning the continent the moniker of a living laboratory. This scenario has led to several thorny issues, for example perceived extractive behaviour of international “experts” and the subjugation of researchers in Africa to data collectors, logistic organisers and facilitators. Many of icipe’s globally collaborative research initiatives show that Africa can become a site of unity to produce the best knowledge for the greatest impact. In our partnerships, we contribute scientific and technological capacity; indigenous understanding of insect biodiversity; linkages to national and regional institutions and communities; and insights on developmental urgencies, agendas and aspirations. Our collaborators benefit from these vital perceptions and the opportunity to study insects in their actual environment, while complementing our expertise. Together, we harmonise our institutional mandates and visions.

Homegrown resources

The old adage holds: charity begins at home, and reducing over-reliance of African research institutions on external funding may well be the ultimate trump card for Decolonising Knowledge in Africa. As discussed in subsequent sections of this publication, the icipe-managed RSIF demonstrates how investments from African governments and international partners, as well as high-net-worth individuals, foundations and private sector across the continent, can be harnessed for Africa-led research and innovation priorities and doctoral training through innovative, participatory and effective intra-African and global collaborations.

International funding models

A disenfranchising factor, and one of the most deep-routed concerns in knowledge generation in Africa, is the structure of some funding models, for example those that assign research leadership and direction to organisations in the donor countries or regions. In effect, researchers in such institutions assume the role of principal investigators (PIs), with authority over most aspects of the project. Such stipulations may have several adverse impacts, for example depreciated role of researchers in developing countries, power and resource allocation asymmetries and diminished local ownership of initiatives. Regional standards are needed in Africa to guide funding models and provide a template to: ensure agency of local researchers and partners; equitable resource allocations that strengthen capacities, capabilities and infrastructure; ensure visionary research agenda; guarantee efficient project administration and implementation; and demonstrate return of investment, as is indeed the shared desire between us and our esteemed development partners.

Epistemic liberation

There are two schools of thought on the epistemic aspects of Decolonising Knowledge. The first calls for diversification of thought by mainstreaming marginalised geo-histories and ways of knowing. The second rationale aims for outright rejection of western thought and its alleged hegemonic authority. At icipe we remain committed to the international norms and standards of scientific research. Indeed, we argue for improved access by African researchers to global epistemic resources; the ‘knowledge’ to generate new ‘knowledge,’ including scholarly publications, journals and learning materials. While progress has been made through open-access publishing many such resources remain out of access for researchers in Africa, blocked by paywalls, copyrights and patents. Also, a shift from predominant funding of applied aspects, and more support for basic research in Africa will enable the continent’s scientists to follow their intellectual curiosities, participate in the excitement of scientific discovery and augment their contribution to scientific knowledge.

The Matthew effect

Excellence in knowledge production is often equated to publication in peer-reviewed journals, especially those with a high impact. At icipe, we consider this criteria an important indicator of our global recognition and reputation, and we are extremely proud of the growing quality and quantity of our publications. However, various studies have shown that the sole attention on metrics like number of publications, ranking or citations, reinforces hierarchies in knowledge production. Indeed, the over-focus on this approach often leads to the Matthew effect, a concept that describes the cumulative advantage accruing to some scientists, institutions and countries with comparative advantages for instance in terms of location, better capacity and resources. Conversely, this process leads to the marginalisation of scientists with lesser opportunities to publish. As such, the increasing calls for expanding the measures of scientific contribution to other factors like the relevance of research to national agendas and its socio-economic impact, are valid.

Decolonising the Decolonial Movement

Decolonisation of knowledge will require participation of all stakeholders. But concerns have been raised about the extent to which African intellectual communities are contributing to the theorisation that will eventually inform the outcomes of this movement. There is also a possibility that in many instances, inputs from African researchers are being mediated by northern institutions. The Decolonising Knowledge movement should be a call to action for us in Africa; we should not forfeit our right and responsibility to think and to theorise from our distinctive geographic and socio-cultural perspective.


*This article was first published for the icipe e-bulletin: Volume 11, Issue No. 1, 2021 (pdf). To republish any sections, please contact: