Having piloted Economic Activation Offices (EAOs) in 10 universities during 2022, the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme invited the partnering institutions to collectively reflect on the past year’s operations. They explored triumphs and challenges experienced to help inform the future direction of EAOs as more universities adopt the initiative this year. The two-day gathering took place in Cape Town from 8 to 9 March.

The EAOs idea was a response to the need for integrated efforts, structures and entrepreneurship resources within universities – informed by a finding from EDHE’s National University Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Baseline study report of 2020. The study had found that the disparities between programmes and individual institutions were making it difficult to assess progress made in entrepreneurship development activities. This led to the call for a coordinated and suitably managed internal office at each university. Moreover, in line with EDHE’s objective to support universities as entrepreneurial and innovative ecosystems, the EAOs are positioned to capacitate universities to expand and deepen their entrepreneurship development response.

The 10 universities housing EAOs are the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the Durban University of Technology, Nelson Mandela University, Sol Plaatje University, the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Cape Town, the University of Johannesburg, the University of Limpopo, the University of Venda and Walter Sisulu University.

What transpired from status updates was that although role players understood that their mandate was not to create new entrepreneurship programmes but to build and collaborate with existing projects at their institutions, there was resistance from some that frustrated follow through. Nonetheless, these representatives shared nuggets of success and how they intend to grow as points of contact at their universities to advance entrepreneurship.

EAOs’ objectives

Mr Richardt Kok (left), EDHE’s Stakeholder Manager, explained the central objective of EAOs as being to connect entrepreneurship-focused initiatives in the universities. They also facilitate information gathering and foster institutional collaboration on entrepreneurship development.

As the 10 university representatives shared their experiences, Kok emphasised the importance of this workshop in the context of advancing EDHE’s objectives to develop an entrepreneurial mindset in students and academics, and to cultivate entrepreneurial universities.

“We do not have all the answers. That is why we are here to evaluate what has succeeded and what needs refining. This workshop will chart a pathway for us and the next batch of universities to join the initial group of 2022.”

He then outlined six steps that EAOs’ representatives may apply to establish themselves and the work they intend to achieve at their universities. Essentially, they cannot work alone, he said, hence the need to mobilise volunteers.

According to Kok, before the EAO officials can immerse themselves in work, they need to:

  1. Develop a clear plan detailing objectives, strategies, and support to be given to volunteers.
  2. Identify the right people from the university community with interest in entrepreneurship, business development and mentoring, including student organisations, clubs and industry partners.
  3. Provide volunteers with training and support to help them understand their roles and potential contributions.
  4. Communicate effectively to keep entrepreneurship champions informed about project updates.
  5. Provide recognition and incentives to volunteers and supporters for their efforts.
  6. Deeply engage the university, the local business community and entrepreneurs to identify their needs and strengths to identify adequate support tools.

While these steps might not guarantee the EAO’s success, Kok said they provided clarity for those wishing to get involved – especially considering that EDHE encourages the involvement of university executives and senior management. Volunteers also need to see a clear picture with the aim to eventually incorporate the EAOs’ activities into the officials’ key performance index (KPIs).

The Stakeholder Manager further expressed a need for these EAOs to align their activities with the broader strategic vision of their base universities. The ultimate purpose is to grow the entrepreneurship landscape and create impact.

Standard Bank as partners

From its inception, the EAOs project has been supported by Standard Bank, which has a vested interest in South Africa’s youth empowerment through education. They believe that strengthening universities’ entrepreneurial ecosystem will position the institutions as critical hubs for nurturing an entrepreneurial culture for the country.

To achieve that end, Ms Tarika Raghunandan (left), Ecosystem Manager at Standard Bank, addressed the EAO officials on effective mechanisms for establishing entrepreneurial ecosystems.  She said Standard Bank had benefitted from understanding the term ‘ecosystem’ as a methodology that extends to collaborating and forming partnerships.

According to her, when the Bank realised that their clients form a value chain for ecosystems, they found ways to plug them in, either by creating job opportunities or starting businesses. She said this was about connecting the dots, leveraging off each other and building synergies within the economy.

“It takes listening to the client — what they are looking for and understanding their objectives. It is a process that necessitates knowing the person, being cognisant of what matters to them and then aligning solutions to their values.” She also pointed to the value of building relationships around personal touch – understanding clients’ likes and dislikes and how they operate. She said talking strictly business to clients often hinders building genuine connections.

Raghunandan cautioned the EAO representatives against missing out on opportunities and information because of fear or inability to initiate relationships fostering conversations. It was important to overcome such fear to empower themselves to connect their different ecosystems with growth propelling measures. Ultimately, building effective relationships was about gaining the trust and confidence of the other party, she said.

She concluded by commending the EDHE programme for successfully getting the EAOs off the ground, conceding that winning people around a common idea can be difficult.

Developing a guidebook for the EAOs

The Cape Town workshop saw the EDHE officials and workshop attendees brainstorming towards a guidebook for EAO operations, which, according to Kok, would serve as a manual on how the EAOs should deliver on their mandate, henceforth.

Comprising 21 guidelines, Kok dubbed this guidebook an epitome of co-creation of intellectual property, a repository of information and a blueprint for the establishment of future EAOs. The manual would also enable the remaining universities to navigate around the hurdles that the initial group had experienced.

Formation of a community of practice

With this wealth of knowledge shared, the group agreed that a community of practice would be essential to turn the attendees’ commitments into action. Thus, the new national Community of Practice (CoP) for Economic Activation Offices was born, further leading to the election of Ms Jayde Barends (left, below) as this group’s Chairperson. Barends is the Senior Technology Transfer Officer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Barends’ right hand and Deputy Chairperson is Professor Pierre Joubert (right, above), Head of the School of Economics and Management Sciences at Sol Plaatje University. This brought to seven, the total number of CoPs driving the EDHE programme within universities.

As the workshop wrapped up, Kok surmised that the wisdom exchanged by the EAO representatives in attendance had demonstrated that they were headed in the right direction.  Hereafter, EDHE would invite proposals from the remaining 16 institutions, each detailing how the EAO structure would fit into their unique ecosystem. The ultimate goal is for all 26 public universities to participate in this initiative.

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant for Universities South Africa.

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