Biodiversity informatics is a relatively new field of investigation but quite indispensable for acquiring deep knowledge on biodiversity and informing decision-making on biodiversity conservation and sustainable use. Since its establishment in 2004, the national node in Benin has taken many initiatives to train national partners to build basic capacities in data digitization, formatting, cleaning and publishing, establishing a strong community of data publishers. Sufficiently convincing decision- and policy-makers of the impact of biodiversity informatics, however, requires sound data use cases. Realizing that for building capacity in data use—including treatment, analysis, spatial distribution and ecological niche modelling—a more organized framework is necessary, GBIF Benin has undertaken the initiative of creating a master's degree programme in Biodiversity Informatics.
Led by Dr. Jean Cossi Ganglo, Director of the Laboratory of Forest Sciences at the University of Abomey-Calavi, and node manager of GBIF Benin, the programme is a result of an international collaboration with colleagues at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute. Ganglo recalls:
"As a university professor I had experience with writing and introducing new curricula, and with the help and advice of professors A. Townsend Peterson and Leonard Krishtalka and their existing curriculum in biodiversity informatics, I was able to draft and submit the proposal for a master programme to the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences where it was accepted."
Professor Augustin Aoudji, Deputy Coordinator and trainer describes the scope and impact of the master programme:
“The programme is committed to training renowned experts in the field of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use for human well-being. Thanks to its regional focus, the programme will contribute to strengthening the capacities of Sub-Saharan Africa’s countries in the mobilization, publication and use of biodiversity data for decision-making. During their training, students are offered traineeships in institutions working on biodiversity to practice the content of lectures received. After their graduation, they can be employed in national as well as international institutions working on biodiversity.”
Now in its second year, the master programme contributes to in-depth training of a new generation of specialists in biodiversity sciences, accepting 20 students per year, not just from Benin, but a wide range of African countries, including Côte-d’Ivoire, Togo and DR Congo. Marceline Sondi Kizika, enrolled student from DR Congo explains:
”I applied for this programme because I am from a big country containing around 47% of African forest and an exceptional biodiversity, much of which remains unknown because of the relative lack of data. All national reports of the Convention on Biological Diversity in DR Congo underline the lack and poor quality of data available. The last annual report generated by GBIF in January 2019 shows this lack in data published and used by the Congolese. Even the few data published about DRC, were done by others abroad, mostly in Belgium. From the Master programme in Biodiversity Informatics I am gaining knowledge about the different types of biodiversity data, threats to biodiversity, different uses of data (ecological niche modeling, species conservation, and species spatial distribution), the importance of data publication, and the process for data cleaning and publishing. I want to become a biodiversity defender and open source data ambassador in my country. I want to bring my knowledge to help researchers and institutions to do a better job for better decision making about biodiversity of this mega source (DRC).”
Gorgias Aikpon, a student from Benin, adds:
“During this training, I acquired skills in data mobilization, data cleaning, cartography, ecological niche modeling of various species to conserve biodiversity in the context of climate change. I hope at the end of this training I will continue with my Ph. D. I would also like to improve my skills in teaching and research in Biodiversity Informatics and get the opportunity to work in International institutions.”
With a goal of becoming a sustainable centre of excellence of biodiversity informatics in Africa, the programme has received support from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation through which it has been able to support bringing in international trainers, including from GBIF France and Universities of Florida and Kansas, further strengthening international collaboration opportunities. The GBIF node staff are also able to contribute resources thanks to in-depth capacity training through internships abroad.
Kicking off the registration for a third year of the programme, Dr. Ganglo recently appeared on a hour-long television special focused on biodiversity (in French):
Based on the experience of setting up the graduate programme, Ganglo offers advice to other nodes in the GBIF network:
"The creation and implementation of this programme has not been easy and it has taken courage, vision, endurance, and persistence. To be successful, node staff should either be teachers at a university or have close connections with universities through cooperation agreements. You need qualified teaching staff trained in biodiversity informatics since the daily implementation and management of the program depend on the local staff. It is not a single person task, but requires a team."