Season 2 Ep 4: Pioneering Africa’s Information Landscape with insights from Dr. Gracian Chimwaza of Information Training & Outreach Centre for Africa (ITOCA)

16 January 2024 Categories: latest news, Mazungumzo Podcasts, News


librarians, researchers, africa, research, libraries, digital, challenges, issue, institutions, years, journey, african, university, information, support, access, pushing


In this episode, Dr. Gracian Chimwaza, the founding director of the Information Training & Outreach Centre for Africa (ITOCA), narrates his 24-year journey in leading capacity development and research projects across African countries. Dr. Chimwaza emphasizes the challenges, triumphs, and the evolving role of librarians in scholarly communication in Africa. The episode is a captivating exploration of the dynamic landscape of research, digital libraries, and the importance of collaborative efforts to advance information access and education in the continent.


Here are the key things to look out for:


Evolution of Dr. Chimwaza’s Journey: Explore how Dr. Chimwaza transitioned from electronic engineering to information science and his passion for addressing societal challenges through innovation and knowledge exchange.


Foundation of ITOCA: Learn about the inception of ITOCA and its growth, spurred by collaborations, and the pivotal role it plays in supporting African researchers, librarians, and information specialists.


Challenges in Digital Transformation: Delve into the challenges faced by African institutions in adopting digital tools, including issues of connectivity, infrastructure, and the need for ongoing skills development.


Role of Librarians: Understand the evolving role of librarians as digital specialists, addressing challenges such as predatory journals, AI, and the importance of content quality in the digital era.


Partnership with TCC Africa: Explore the strategic partnership between ITOCA and TCC Africa, focusing on enhancing librarians’ capacity in open scholarly infrastructure and the potential impact of this collaboration.


Vision for Scholarly Communication: Gain insights into Dr. Chimwaza’s vision for the future of scholarly communication in Africa, with librarians playing a central role in facilitating access to information and contributing to addressing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).





Welcome to Mazungumzo, African scholarly conversations, a podcast that highlights the perspectives of various stakeholders in academia, and research fields across Africa through open dialogue or mazungumzo on scholarly communication in Africa.


Joy Owango:

Welcome to Mazungumzo – African Scholarly Conversations, where we are joined by an expansive list of African policymakers, science communication specialists, innovators, and tertiary institution leads who contribute to this realm of science communication.


I’m your host Joy Owango, the Executive Director of the Training Centre in Communication (TCC Africa).

Joining us today is Dr. Gracian Chimwaza, a visionary leader at the crossroads of research, education, and technology. Dr. Gracian is the founding director for the Information Training & Outreach Centre for Africa (ITOCA). In the last 20 years, he has led extensive capacity development and research projects in many African countries focusing on digital libraries, knowledge exchange, data management, e-resources access, and information literacy programs.

He holds a Ph.D. in Information Science from the University of Pretoria (South Africa) and a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) degree from Thames Valley University (United Kingdom).

A warm welcome to the program Dr. Gracian.

Dr. Chimwaza

Thank you for having me, Joy. I’m glad to be here.


Joy Owango:

Let’s start by delving into your journey. You have an extensive background in diverse fields. How did this shape your journey into capacity development in information and digital tools in the African education and research sectors?


Dr. Chimwaza

Well, I’ve been really excited, and always very inquisitive about information and research, especially when we talk about innovation, and coming up with new ideas, and when we actually implement these ideas to address the societal change challenges that we have especially at a local level. This has actually driven me into the realm of information and knowledge exchange over the years, and therefore, I joined the scholarly platform to really push forward these new ideas and innovations especially in the African region, as we struggle with many issues to do with poverty, food and health. And that’s what has actually driven me over the years to be in this realm.


Joy Owango:

Out of that, what did you find yourself getting to work with librarians and knowledge managers within universities?


Dr. Chimwaza

It’s actually an interesting journey that I’ve gone through my background is actually in electronic engineering, I worked and trained as an electronic engineer for many years before the 90s. And I thought I’d spend the rest of my life actually working with the machines and making sure that I am actually fixing the problems, troubleshooting, and resolving the issues at hardware level. When I actually started doing this, I then realized that my passion, was working with the human beings interacting with them and trying to actually solve the human challenges that we have here on Earth. And that’s what actually drove me to then started going through and I actually went back to school to study more on marketing, much beyond the electronics that I had studied over the years. And that’s how I became then more interested in those who manage information because I realized that with information, you are more informed, with information, you can make appropriate decisions. And that’s how I’m working with librarians and information specialists.


Joy Owango:

And so, if you can remember vividly, which was the first university you started working with, because you’re literally working with all the universities in the continent. Which was the very first one you reached out to with this idea?


Dr. Chimwaza

Yes, well, right from the onset. I started working in Zimbabwe because I was based in Zimbabwe, in Harare, and the University of Zimbabwe is just in my neighborhood. I started working with the library there right at the onset, so the University of Zimbabwe was my starting point.


Joy Owango:

And then you came down to South Africa, but then you ended up working with Cornell University. How did that happen because that’s what led to ITOCA as we know it? How did that happen?


Dr. Chimwaza:

Yes, actually right at the onset, when Cornell University started the program called TEAL (The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library) in 1998, they wanted someone who would promote, and train on this product, which was cutting edge at that time, bringing journals via the CD technology at that time, which was really cutting edge at that time. They approached me and actually hired me to be the person because of my knowledge in the background, as far as electronics was concerned which was engineering and working with computers, and also because of my knowledge, working with libraries, and they wanted someone who could actually market this new product and I was hired by Cornell University library in 1999, to be able to work with universities and research organizations in Africa. And that’s how the relationship with Cornell University started.


Joy Owango:

And is that how ITOCA was created because what you’re telling me was Cornell University was looking at a way in which E-resources would move from paper to paperless. So that’s why they were coming with some of these options as CDs back in the 90’s that was the closest to the digital output that we had. Is this what led to the creation of ITOCA?


Dr. Chimwaza:

Yes, absolutely. So therefore, once I started working with one library, we realized that there was more capacity we needed to build, to actually we work with more libraries across West Africa, as far as Senegal is concerned, and all the way up to the north and going to the east, with Kenya, with Ethiopia, and all that and coming all the way down to South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland.  We realized that we needed much more capacity than just one person, myself. And because of that, we then incorporated ITOCA, which is information Training and Outreach Center for Africa. And that’s how it was born in late 1999.


Joy Owango:

Okay, and because of this, it has made you sit on several boards, including the Research for Life, Executive Council, and Cyberplex Africa, and you’ve been a speaker at various international regional research and education policy meetings. Could you please share with us your experiences in these global forums, bearing in mind, that you’re sharing the activities that the growth and the contribution that ITOCA has made to the academic community in Africa, being one of the catalysts in supporting universities from moving from physical to online libraries, especially through access of e-resources?


Dr. Chimwaza:

Well, because of my passion to support the researcher, with both digital access, and also with innovations, it has always been my dream, to realize that as far as information is concerned, it must be at the fingertips, literally, of the researcher so that they can actually work more with their innovations, and not worry about accessing information. And therefore, this has actually driven me to become a champion in working with the researchers in Africa. And therefore, colleagues in Research for life, obviously, realize this passion. And that’s how I became nominated, as the Chair for the Research for Life Executive Council, that I’m heading at the moment. And over the years, many digital institutions and also companies have invited me to sit on their boards, like the Cyberplex Organization that has actually been working in sub-Sahara Africa, pushing forward the web solutions have also I’ve also been sitting on the board and serving as the chair of that organization as well. And really, for me, it is showing me that, as Africans, as researchers and as information people, we really can afford to support our researchers so that they can come up with the innovations that they require when they do their work.


Joy Owango:

And if you could take me through now the role that you’re taking with the Research for Life Executive Council, what does that entail, especially for Sub-Saharan Africa? What does it mean for Sub-Saharan Africa and what is ITOCA’s primary role in this whole process?


Dr. Chimwaza:

Really, what we have been doing and pushing for in Research for Life is to talk about beyond just access. Okay, so our researchers can now access a lot of literature, be it eBooks, be it, journals themselves and databases that are available. But beyond that, we want our researchers to be able to publish their new knowledge as well, their innovations, if they are working on in cassava species that they are working on in Malawi, they need to be able to publish that knowledge that they are gaining out of their research, if they are working on the dwarf maize in southern Zimbabwe, and they are ensuring that it is drought resistant, that knowledge must be shared across globally and therefore, we want to support that scholarship, that research by our researchers and ensuring that they can actually publish and in order for them to be able to do that they need to have the skill set to be able to do the publication’s. One challenge that they have as researchers is that they do put together all these manuscripts based on their research findings. But sometimes they are not able to actually publish it, especially when they target the High Impact Factor journals, they will find the rejection rate is quite high. But it’s also because they have actually not put together the package that is attractive to these journals. And they need to be able to have the skills to do that therefore, we ask these researchers to be able to do that. So that has been really my push. And I’m really championing the fact that is beyond just the access. But we also need to support the research and scholarship for the researchers in global south.


Joy Owango:

It’s really exciting to note that because ITOCA was part of the inspiration of the creation of TCC Africa. TCC Africa is now about 17 years old, we are hosted and housed at the University of Nairobi. We noticed that researchers were struggling to publish and even communicate amongst themselves. We started by training, pushing the scholarly publishing process, understanding this ecosystem, so that they could effectively share their information, not only with their peers, but non scientists as well. This whole process influenced us in expanding our portfolio by working with policymakers and also with the higher education institutions because it’s a whole life cycle that influences the final research output of an academic. So, it’s quite interesting to note that, yes, we have been thinking alike but most importantly, it is also exciting to note that this is a problem that is also being mitigated by African institutions. This is something that we need to really push. And that is what ITOCA has been pushing highlighting that they are stakeholders in the continent, who are pushing for the capacity building and strengthening of researchers and higher education institutions, such that they can produce good quality research output and make it actually much more visible and accessible.


So you’re 24 years old, congratulations, 24th anniversary for ITOCA, I’m sure it has been a journey. So, could you share with us the significance on reaching this milestone? What has been the most memorable moment or experience that affirmed that the work ITOCA was doing was technically helpful to the academic community?


Dr. Chimwaza:

Oh, yes, we are really excited and delighted that we have reached 24 years, it’s really been a journey. And we really owe it to the support that we have from all our collaborators across the continent in Africa and beyond. We really have worked with colleagues in Europe, we have worked in America, colleagues and universities and research organizations that are really interested in supporting the African researcher. In the last 24 years, what really makes me happy is that I realized that we have supported many librarians, information specialists, researchers to publish their own knowledge to be able to actually make it into the global arena as far as High Impact Factor journals are concerned, the local journals, the regional journals, all these channels to be able to get that knowledge out. That really makes me happy. What also we’ve been able to do is to bring the collaborations. We always say one of ITOCA’s strength is to actually be able to convene different meetings and work with different partners. We have been able to host a lot of research work that has been done across different thematic areas, from health, to research to the environment, to hardcore sciences, in very different areas. That collaboration and being able to put together that infrastructure, and help the researchers really makes me happy that we’ve been able to do that.  I’m hopeful that going forward, as we collaborate some more with TCC and with many other partners, we will be able to continue to strengthen the support that we are giving to the African researcher. That way we will be able to address like I indicated the challenges that we have in the societies, especially in Africa, the problems of health, the problems of food security, the problems of addressing the issues with to do with environment, those are the issues that we need to be able to tackle. We can work with our policymakers to ensure that they really put together policies that support the researchers to be able to come up with these solutions.


Joy Owango:

Now here is a very interesting question. Did you ever think you’d reach to 24 years, were there times you felt that this is not working? This is just tiring?


Dr. Chimwaza:

Absolutely, I mean, it’s not been an easy journey, I must say, especially as a Not-for-profit organization. We depend a lot on grants, we depend a lot on project funds. This is what we call soft money, you know, which really comes and goes.  It is difficult to really project and ensure that you are sustainable going forward.  With the support of the collaborators that we work with, we’ve been able to do that. So, we are really delighted that we can actually be able to achieve 24 years as a major milestone in our journey going forward. And want to thank all those that are collaborating with us.


Joy Owango:

So, what are what are some of the challenges I talk our faces in facilitating the integration of digital tools and technologies within research and education institutions? And how do you build enthusiasm to embrace these technologies?


Dr. Chimwaza:

Well, there are many challenges. One of them, obviously, as we know, is the issue of the infrastructure as far as IT is concerned, connectivity is still an issue, and bandwidth is still expensive at institutions. Although in the last 15-20 years now we have have a … (inaudible..)as far as the data and internet connectivity is concerned on our coastal areas in Africa, thanks to the undersea cables that are there. So, there is internet available, but it is bringing it to the last mile connection at the institutions inland, that has become a challenge over the years. So, we have seen some gradual improvement, also, with the fiber optics technology coming in and bringing internet to the institutions is really great. I would like to see more of that, especially bringing the cost down as far as bandwidth and internet costs.  These are the kinds of challenges that we have, especially wanting to push digital at the institutional level. It has really taken us long; we’ve come a long way from the days of the CD-ROM. We have really come a long way.  I think there is more to be done and hopefully our governments and those who are working with the CSOs and everyone can really collaborate to make sure that at the end of the day, we can bring this issue to rest as far as connectivity challenges are concerned.


Joy Owango:

Other than connectivity challenges, don’t you think the issue of understanding digital is an issue because the connectivity is there, the infrastructure is there, but doesn’t necessarily mean that the users understand it? Is this something that you faced? and you find yourself going over and over again, of course, also, within institutions, they’re always changing their leaders. They’re constantly changing their leaders so, you have to start from scratch and having this conversation over and over again.


Dr. Chimwaza:

Absolutely so, connectivity is one issue, but also the skills that we need to build that right. To continue to really build on it. You will go to institutions, we’re working with the librarians, we’re working with deans, faculty themselves to make sure that their academic staff is really on top of the situation. So that training is quite important. They need to be able to have the training, but also, more importantly, what they actually access on the internet digitally, the quality has got to be the right quality, what they’re looking for. That’s why the literature that they find online has to be the right literature, that suits what they’re doing as far as research is concerned. So, it is the content issue, it is the connectivity issues, it is the skill set to be able to be trained in the right skills, to be able to then put all this together, now you that you have got a combo that will ensure that you can address the challenges that you have.


Joy Owango:

Now, in the context of the rapidly evolving information, tools and technologies, how do you envision the role of African libraries evolving over the next decade? What sustainable strategies would you recommend for them to harness the evolving landscape of open science communication?


Dr. Chimwaza:

Well, the librarians play a very critical role at the institutions, whether it is at the academic institutions or at the research institutions, because they hold all the keys to the information. Information is crucial. Therefore, going forward, I see a more involved role. We are pushing at the moment for evidence synthesis, to ensure that the research that has been done can address the challenges that were meant for that, and you need to be able to size that information. They key in that evidence synthesis is the duty of a librarian which has made sure that one can access the information. We also have got the challenges coming up now with AI with artificial intelligence, we’ve got challenges is that we have seen going forward with papermills, when we are actually doing publications and all that. And again, the role of the librarian is crucial in holding the hand of the researcher to say, “This is where you get the right information”. And this information we have with predatory journals and issues like that, you need to be able to make sure that the researchers are aware of those challenges. I can see a more important role being played by librarians going forward as they assist the researchers and policymakers going forward.


Joy Owango:

Does this also mean that we are seeing librarians evolve to be digital librarians?


Dr. Chimwaza:

Absolutely. They need to get a handle of what is happening in the digital arena. If you are going to be assisting with issues to do with AI with paper mills, and that you need yourself to be really up to speed as far as digital issues are concerned. So definitely a digital librarian in the new era. That’s correct.


Joy Owango:

Okay, so ITOCA a recently announced a strategic partnership with TCC Africa to enhance librarians’ capacity in open scholarly infrastructure. In the context of this new partnership, what do you envision as the potential impact of this collaboration? And how do you plan to broaden your reach to engage more stakeholders within the African research education and development sectors?


Dr. Chimwaza:

Well, ITOCA and TCC are bringing on the table the synergies that they have and this will ensure that together as a partnership, we can push forward in strengthening the role of the librarian and the information specialist. I can see this really being a new chapter. As far as supporting the researchers is concerned, we already are playing our important roles. And we’ve got the vision to continue to support research and education in our different territories but coming together, I think we can pull together with more force with more horsepower to be able to work with the librarian and be able to bring in new heights for the library’s I can see more opportunities in expanding the digital librarians’ efforts going forward. And therefore, it’s a new chapter for me. And hopefully it is the same for TCC going forward.


Joy Owango:

Oh, indeed it is. We are truly excited about these new developments as well.

Now, as we wind up, what are your parting shots? Having seen how you’ve literally been one of the catalysts in moving librarians from physical libraries to digital libraries, to understanding the importance of accessing affordable E-resources or accessing them free. What are your parting shots when you’re looking at the future of Scholarly Communication in Africa, especially when it comes to access to resources,


Dr. Chimwaza:

I can see the librarian playing a key role going forward as a digital specialist, ensuring that they’re opening doors for researchers, policymakers, and all the other stakeholders, it is key that we continue as information specialists to play this role where we are bringing everyone onto the table, and ensuring that we point them to the resources that are available with the resources in terms of information and knowledge exchange, is key that the librarian is in the fore of that. I would like my librarian colleagues, and my information specialist colleagues to take this role more seriously going forward so that they can really play that important role. As far as addressing, especially the SDGs when we look at them, every SDG the 17 of them, when you look at them, what is important and what is at the center of it is information and exchange. And that’s the role of the librarian. The way I see it.


Joy Owango:

Thank you so much, Dr. Gracian, and that was an amazing interview. Thank you so much for making time to be with us.


Dr. Gracian:

Thank you for the opportunity for



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