There are pockets of excellence in the entrepreneurship ecosystem at South African universities. But, where are the gaps? How can they be overcome? What is the role of the Economic Activation Offices that were launched last year, and what milestones have they achieved, to date?

These questions were addressed during the session Economic Activation Offices at universities– the present and the future, at last week’s EDHE Lekgotla 2022, that was hosted by Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, under the theme #movetomarket.

Taking part were Mr Buhle Dhlamini (2nd from right), Head: Social Innovation and Incubation at Allan Gray and Gill Gray Philanthropy South Africa; Ms Naledzani Mosomane, Head: Enterprise Development at Standard Bank SA, who presented virtually; Mr Ben Pretorius (far right), Executive Head: Education Sector, Business and Commercial Clients at Standard Bank SA and Ms Caro Buitendag (2nd from left) from the University of Johannesburg’s Technology Transfer Office. Mr Richardt Kok (far left), Stakeholder Manager for the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, moderated this discussion.

Mr Buhle Dhlamini (left) gave an example of his experiences as a former student entrepreneur: “There is still a disconnection regarding coordination of entrepreneurial activities on campuses. Not so long ago, as an entrepreneur while studying at Wits University, I participated in a bid to take over a residence tuckshop. It may not seem the most glorious and innovative business but it was a business, nonetheless.

“At that time, the institution had missed an opportunity, as it did not have a place where students could go as a one-stop shop to access mentoring, to get business incubation support and access workshops. I needed help to better understand my target market and to grow myself as a future business owner. That’s where I see gap: student entrepreneurs still don’t always know where to go to receive support and information on available opportunities.”

He firmly believes that it does not matter whether a student pursues a business venture, after graduating, or goes into employment. Either way, they enter the workplace with valuable entrepreneurial skills.

“We’ve seen in Silicon Valley, in the United States, what some of the universities that are in the area have achieved (Stanford, for example), thanks to their dynamic culture of entrepreneurship. They actively pursue and attract future entrepreneurs,” he concluded.

It is vital, the panellists agreed, that universities collaborate. To deliver greater results, there needs to be coordination within the national university economic ecosystem.

That is why the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme launched Economic Activation Offices (EAO) at universities in October 2021, to play a central (internal) role in the university’s entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem. They have a specific focus on the facilitation and coordination of support, networking and information sharing in the broader university community. Ten public universities are in the pilot project.

Said Mr Richardt Kok (left): “The EAO is really a central point within the university ecosystem. Everything and anything that is related to entrepreneurship should have a link to the economic activation office. We wish to see the EAO creating a ripple effect. EDHE already has five national communities of practice and we want to inspire the institutions to start their own communities of practice as well.”

Kok also spoke of the University Entrepreneurship Resource Tour and Video Project, in which the current 10 selected EDHE EAO office partners will get to showcase their institutions’ specific fields of entrepreneurial success, captured in a 10-minute video. “Each university will tell their own story and introduce unique personalities and attributes which could potentially inspire students, academics, investor and business for the university.”

Standard Bank proudly supports the EDHE Economic Activation Offices

Mr Ben Pretorius (right) explained that Standard Bank has taken a holistic approach to supporting the education sector to ensure lasting and sustainable impact, aligned to some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the National Development Plan’s vision of eliminating poverty and reducing inequality by 2030.

“We live in an ever-changing environment. The businesses which can adapt to these changes efficiently and effectively will be the businesses of the future. Standard Bank has established what we call an ‘education sector,’ not necessarily referring to learning and development but intending to add value to the whole sector.”

As part of its efforts to widen access to education, he said Standard Bank was first on the continent to launch an unsecured Student Loan Fund for students without surety or any kind of collateral, so that they can enrol in courses across the fields of health sciences, law, agriculture, and management and business.

Standard Bank is also piloting a financial literacy programme that covers everything from navigating financial markets to personal finance, which it hopes to introduce into schools’ and universities’ curricula. “We believe that this will help to unlock sustainable economic growth. It is a prerequisite for the growth in this country.

“We are delighted to be supporting the EAO programme that is currently being rolled out at these 10 institutions in 2022. More will come in 2023 and 2024.”

His colleague, Ms Naledzani Mosomane (above), echoed Pretorius’s views: “The role of entrepreneurship in stimulating economic growth is extremely close to my heart. In my view, the Economic Activation Offices’ role of accelerating youth enterprise development is critical for stimulating job creation that will improve the communities in which the young people live. That should also empower young individuals to take control of their lives.”

The University of Johannesburg (UJ), one of the 10 universities involved in the pilot EAO programme, was represented by Ms Caro Buitendag (left), who unveiled UJ’s pilot phase objectives:

  • Create a central entrepreneurship desk to steer entrepreneurial activities to appropriate entities within UJ.
  • Break down silos while reassuring staff and others that the EAO is there for support and not take over anyone’s jobs.
  • Avoid duplication of effort.
  • Optimise the use of resources within the ecosystem.
  • Better network and integrate UJ’s entrepreneurship initiatives.
  • Create entrepreneurship synergy within UJ.

“It has been a daunting but hugely rewarding task. We first set out to research who was doing what in the entrepreneurial space. We were able to see where we were overlapping and where there were noticeable gaps. We want to create an online portal for all this information – the Siri of entrepreneurship in UJ, if you will.”

Tangible outputs expected from participation in the pilot phase include:

  • Refinements and enhancement of the mapping of the UJ entrepreneurship ecosystem.
  • Phase One of the entrepreneurship online portal live.
  • Establish a UJ Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Forum.
  • Proposal for leadership, staffing, structure and location of the economic activation function.
  • Metrics to measure programme success and outputs.
  • Communication and sharing of information.

Buitendag continued: “We have a very interesting item launching soon; it’s called the UJ Invent online store, which is a platform for staff, academics, researchers and students to potentially sell their products that have emanated from their research.

“The Economic Activation Office has so much more to offer than just being the connector. I believe it should be run as an office with dedicated staff and not just one person taking on a mammoth task.”

So, what is the difference between Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) and EAOs?

Said Kok: “TTOs have a very specific line of work that they have to focus on. But it’s really again about building a community within the university and to be more informed. Many students don’t know where to go for assistance, whether they only have an idea or a viable product. It’s about bringing the various people and parts together and how they can collaborate.”

Buitenbach concluded: “The EAO, in my mind, serves as the information desk of everything that is entrepreneurship related at the university and its campuses. A student might come to us and say ‘I need support in developing a prototype’. We will guide them and refer them to the right entities. We are not here to take over the work of the TTOs.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

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