The joint Academy-Industry Training: Swiss and African Science and Business Innovators Programme (AIT-SASBI) Spring Conference 2023 that was hosted by Universities South Africa’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme last week bore testimony to the genuine friendship formed between the governments of Switzerland and South Africa in support of education, research and innovation for mutual benefit.  

These sentiments were expressed by Ms Jacquelene Friedenthal (above), Science and Technology Counsellor at the Swiss Embassy in South Africa, in welcoming the conference delegates last Wednesday.  She said the Swiss Embassy was facilitating a pairing relationship with the African continent to facilitate the exchange of ideas with the world’s top performer in innovation (Switzerland), through a partnership based on equality, shared resources, and joint agendas.

The AIT-SASBI Spring Conference 2023 was jointly hosted by Universities South Africa’s Enterpreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme in collaboration with the University of Basel through the Swiss- South Africa National and International Cooperation programme coordinated by the Swiss Embassy in South Africa. AIT-SASBI is an initiative of the government of Switzerland run by the University of Basel. Their objective is to connect student entrepreneurs with various industries to help them develop the market application of their business ideas.

Themed Social and Tech-driven Innovation for Impact, the AIT-SASBI Spring Conference 2023 coincided with EDHE’s Kick-off event for 2023, themed social innovation for societal impact. For the EDHE programme, this event was setting the tone for programme performance for the year. 

To demonstrate that Switzerland takes her relationship with Africa seriously, Ms Friedenthal cited a visit to South Africa in 2022, of the Federal Councillor and head of the federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education, and Research, who was accompanied by a scientific and economic delegation. She also alluded to a more recent visit earlier this month to neighbouring Botswana, by the Swiss President, His Excellency Mr FC Berset.

Unpacking what the Swiss-Africa relationship entails, the Science and Technology Counsellor explained that, to promote education, the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research, and Innovation (SERI) offers full scholarships annually to Ph.D. students in Africa, and 15 annually for South Africa. The Swiss Embassy in Pretoria also facilitates the networks that often lead to bi-lateral institutional agreements and collaborations enabling student mobility through academic summer camps, exchanges, and even joint degrees between African institutions and their Swiss counterparts. 

In another programme, the African Cities Lab Project, supported by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs and implemented by the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology known as EPFL, aims to create an African digital education Platform for urban development.

For research advancement, the Swiss-South Africa Joint Research Programme led to the formation of hundreds of research networks with numerous institutions across the continent, thereby enabling access to multilateral research programmes. Ms Friedenthal mentioned the Swiss-African Research Cooperation (SARECO) that focuses on joint research projects, workshops, seminars, and exchanges with Africa. “Several universities and research councils in Switzerland stand out for their research collaboration with Africa, such as the University of Basel through their Centre for Africa Studies (EPFL), among others, and the St Gallen Africa Association.” 

To accelerate innovation, the Swiss-South Africa Business Development Programme (SSABDP) initiated a science to market (s2m) programme in 2010, an initiative looking to optimise research excellence, which has from 2010 to 2017 seen a throughput of over 1000 delegates. Ms Friedenthal said in 2017, the programme was extended to several African countries, hence those countries’ participation at the AIT-SASBI Spring Conference 2023.

Also supporting innovation is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Village, where the Swiss Embassy collaborates with Swiss and South African startups bringing water and sanitation, clean energy, digitisation to rural villages. She said the energy project straddles South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya. Another African Swiss milestone in innovation is blockchain, which has established the Crypto Valley Venture Capital in Cape Town seeking African blockchain talent for investment.

Finally, Ms Friedenthal cited the Business Technology Programme, an Africa outreach initiative for innovation established in 2010, that has a dedicated vice-chancellor coordinating its activities in South Africa.

Switzerland’s equal partnership philosophy

Ms Friedenthal said her country truly believes in partnerships based on equality, shared resources, and joint agendas. A good example is in the governing of the Research Chairs relationship, where Switzerland adopted the policy processes of South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF) and incorporated them in the Lead Agency Agreement between the NRF and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). Special about the lead agency agreement is the complete trust on both sides as the NRF and SNSF co-determine processes and take joint funding and budget decisions. 

The Science and Technology Counsellor wrapped up her address by expressing her confidence in Africa’s innovation potential. “I’ve seen a shift of innovation in Africa with digitalisation –the technological growth. All of a sudden, this exponential digital advancement allows Africa to innovate without a need for expensive capital investment. Africa is going places,” Ms Friedenthal concluded. 

This is what SA students and academics need, says the USAf CEO

Officially opening the AIT-SASBI Spring Conference 2023 on behalf of Universities South Africa (USAf), Dr Phethiwe Matutu (below), USAf’s Chief Executive Officer, explained the broad mandate of USAf as being to enable South Africa’s 26 public universities to deliver on their mandate of teaching & learning, research, and societal engagement.  

She said the critical deliberations at this conference, on research and innovation, were enabling the collaboration that all parties agreed was critical, for successful innovation. “As we can see, this long-standing collaboration between Switzerland and South Africa has enabled us to work with our sister institutions in Africa — a critical component of creating a footprint on the continent, and an enabler for collaboration.” Dr Matutu acknowledged significant progress already realised in research and innovation among the SASBI participating nations. 

The CEO expressed pride in the role that USAf was playing in promoting entrepreneurship in South Africa’s university sector, and the strides that South Africa had made in technological innovations. This could be attributed to an enabling legislative and policy framework, she said. “The Department of Science and Innovation’s Decadal Plan for Science, Technology and Innovation that puts a high premium on technological advancement is testimony to that. However, that strategic plan requires specific skills sets to manage the initiatives encompassed in it, for success.” She added that “by nurturing entrepreneurs – and enabling our universities to produce entrepreneurial students,” USAf, through the EDHE programme, was doing its bit.

Expressing her full support for the cross-continental networks being facilitated by this event, Dr Matutu concluded by saying that the AIT-SASBI Spring Conference 2023 was significant for instilling an understanding in South Africa’s students and academics, of the driving forces to successful entrepreneurship. 

Hosted in a hybrid format at the Southern Sun Hotel near OR Tambo International Airport from 22 to 23 February, the conference attracted over 200 delegates comprising students, senior academics including deputy vice-chancellors, industry and government representatives from Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Switzerland, Tanzania and the United States. It also attracted speakers from Latin America and the Netherlands.  

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communication. 

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