A planned continental platform for the African Alliance for entrepreneurial universities will – once it is ratified – be a critical vehicle for fostering inter-regional collaboration. So said Dr Victor Konde, Scientific Affairs Officer at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

He was speaking virtually at the 6th annual Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2022, hosted by Nelson Mandela University in the past week.

The EDHE Lekgotla 2022 featured three forms of engagement, aligned with each of the three goals of EDHE:

  • A showcase, aimed at introducing examples of leading good practice that would inspire and equip participants;
  • A thinktank, aimed at engaging thought leaders in an attempt to grapple with and propose strategic solutions to challenges faced in the university entrepreneurship environment;
  • launchpad of new and/or existing initiatives, aimed at aligning the showcase and thinktank outcomes with the mobilisation of potentially high impact EDHE initiatives, thus ensuring that the Lekgotla, in the true EDHE spirit, culminates in action and ecosystemic change.

Dr Norah Clarke (left), Director: Entrepreneurship at Universities South Africa (USAf), moderated the segment showcasing Best practice to inspire and teach: A window on international support initiatives for entrepreneurial universities in Africa.

Supporting the development of entrepreneurial universities in Africa, she said, gave context to the larger national and also regional environment within which institutions operate and students and graduates participate in the economy.

Partnerships, she said, were hugely important, a sentiment echoed by the three speakers showcasing international entrepreneurship and innovation support on the African continent. Dr Clarke described the entrepreneurial university as one “understood by qualities of its continuous review and utilisation of research, its teaching and learning for relevance and responsiveness, for the development of students for a changing world and for its value add and impact to local and regional development”.

SHOWCASE 1: The Swiss-African Science and Business Innovators Forum (SASBI)

Mr Erich Thaler, Senior Manager: Networks and Global Partnership Development of University of Basel, showcased SASBI, a collaboration between Switzerland and South Africa and Africa in higher education and innovation. This included a new Academia-Industry Training (AIT) programme that would continue to grow alumni and participants in the countries within which SASBI operates: South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana.

Stressing the importance of these relationships, Mr Thaler said SASBI programmes were based on experience gleaned since it began working in Africa in 2007. There were many partners (African and international universities, industry and technology companies among them) who were drawn in to support SASBI programmes.

Thaler described one such partner, Afrilabs, as “a fantastic example of a startup growth in Africa. “It started 10 years ago, and now they are an association of more than 350 innovation centres and impact hubs all across Africa. We are proud to work with them,” he said.

As part of the programe for recruiting startups, SASBI relied heavily on local knowledge.  “In Switzerland, we look to the universities to identify startups when it comes to internationalisng businesses in Africa.  Similarly, in South Africa and across Africa, we talk to EDHE and our other partners, asking who are your startups? Who is at the stage of internationalising their business? Who is ready to come to Switzerland? We then invite them to showcase their businesses.”

He said that in February, for the 2nd time in the current funding period, a group of South African startups and partner companies will be invited to pitch their ideas to a jury. This group of judges – chosen for their specific knowledge of the Swiss market – will see if there is a fit with the pitching company and the Swiss market.  “We are recruiting Swiss companies to be a part of the Swiss ecosystem. Likewise, In Africa, juries with specific knowledge of local markets will test the fit for Swiss products and services.

“Because know-how and knowledge sharing are important, we have a “Sounding Board” made up of a range of African and international voices. It’s important to gather as much knowledge as possible from outside experts, and receive benchmarks with which to develop our programmes,” he said.

Academics and innovation officers are also asked to share knowledge about startups, entrepreneurship development and their current programmes. Said Thaler: “One idea of this programme is to build our community, to link participants – African participants go to Switzerland, and the Swiss come to Africa. We hope this link-up happens in person and on social media groups and brings together alumni.”

In the SASBI pipeline is a plan to introduce entrepreneruship courses where there is a sharing of knowledge.  “A group of Unisa startup companies came to Switzerland to participate in innovation skills training at our Innovations Office in Basel.”

Concluding his presentation, Mr Thaler talked about the possibility of further exchange programmes. “In the upper Rhine area where we are based, three countries – Germany, France and Switzerland – are in very close proximity to each other. Five universities in this area work together and offer summer courses. “Why not open up these courses to SASBI participants, or to universitiers in South Africa and partner countries?”

He expected a positive outcome to current investigations into this possibility.

For startups wanting to find out about Swiss companies or how to get to Switzerland www.sareco.org

SHOWCASE 2: Feedback on United Nations Economic Commission For Africa (UNECA): Multinational Research on entrepreneurial universities in Africa.

Giving context, moderator, Dr Clarke, said EDHE was alerted to this research by the Department of Science and Innovation “with whom we are gradually, increasingly, collaborating with.

In 2021, UNECA launched the study to better understand what is happening in entrepreneurial universities in Africa. Nelson Mandela University, Durban University of Technology and Stellenbosch University were part of the pilot five country study.

Dr Clarke said all other (23) South African public universities would be included in the second part of the study.

Dr Konde (above), giving feedback on the study, said while universities can be enterprising – running businesses from hospitals to research centres – they can also be entrepreneurial, cultivating environments where students, researchers and communities flourish. “This includes empowering the mindset – whether we are in our homes, workplaces, in business or the public sector: that’s where we want our universities to be.”

THE STUDY

Round One: Three South African, three Ethopian and seven Ghanaian universities participated.

“We noticed that the areas where we perfomed poorly were exactly the same in all three countries,” Dr Konde said.

Seven dimensions were examined:

  • Leadership: How well are universities positioned regarding entrepreneurship.
  • People and Incentives: How well are we empowering our people? What kind of incentives do we provide for them to promote entrepreneurship in their institution? Dr Konde: “We performed poorly in providing incentives.”
  • Teaching and learning of entrepreneurship.
  • Entrepreneur pathways.
  • External Knowledge exchange: Engagement with the private sector.
  • Internationalisation: Dr Konde: “How do we Africans get our students and researchers to market beyond our borders?
  • Impact measurement: “We performed poorly in this area; we celebrate whatever comes out, but we don’t say whether we did it well.

Round Two: Six Ethiopian, 14 Ghanaian, 15 Kenyan, four Algerian and five Rwandan universities took part.  (We are waiting to get South African access.)

In the second study, they did a deep dive on entrepreneurial pathways, looking at case studies and examining knowledge exchange, at how well the private sector was accessing knowledge in universities.

Dr Konde said: “Universities don’t work on their own, they are part of the larger society.”  To illustrate this, he referred to good and bad practice graphs. The first showed a “centralised option” with academia working on their own – teaching; industry working on its own – leading firms; Government working on large projects.

He said in the Laisse-faire model, Government is hands off, providing only a conducive environment; industry is the pathway to market and academia does teaching and research. They are all loosely linked. Dr Konde: “What we want to do is get our entrepreneurial university to the centre of the triple helix; that is where we have those multiple lateral and bilateral relations and activities.

“That is where roles can easily be exchanged; industry can actually take up research, academia can be a place you find businesses, government can provide training. We want to see strategic alliances emerge. For instance, we want to see government, industry and academia having a joint project – not just supporting each other or providing money.  Joint research facilities and centres is something we wish would happen.”

He cited a successful Singapore model where government, industry and universities worked together in automobile testing and the development of electric cars – doing research together.  In hybrid organisations, incubators, government policies, technology transfer and innovation are clearer and the ecosystem will start to mature “because you can identify those problems together”.

Dr Konde said the good news from an early research-based was that there is abundant enthusiasm for entrepreneurship across the board – Government, industry, society at large and universities.  “We have a young population, increasingly educated and innovative and looking for opportunities. We have growing economies but few of them are tech, which is a good thing to build on,” he said.

Problematic areas:

  • An absence of strategic alliances and joint Research & Development (R&D) centres.
  • Limited or no investment by the universities themselves.
  • Unclear Government policies on entrepreneurial universities.
  • Limited to no links between R&D innovation and entrepreneurship. “Things are happening in the innovation hubs but there is no link to what is coming from research and development”.

THE ALLIANCE

Dr Konde said the African Alliance (still in the early planning stage) was launched in March with 49 members and 11 steering members, the aim being to:

  • Actively amplify the economic and social contributions of universities.
  • Serve as a bridge in academia-industry-government.
  • Establish a common understanding among members in terms of the development of tools, frameworks, methods.
  • Promote intra-regional collaboration through Africa Continental Free Trade Area.
  • Promote and protect the interest of members.
  • Share successes, failures, opportunities and challenges.

“The next stage is to promote and create awareness which we will do at our conference planned for September 2022.”

They are looking at building partnerships with the government and industry.

SHOWCASE THREE: The British Council’s Innovation for African Universities (IAU) Project

This project, launched at EDHE Lekgotla 2021, moderator Dr Clarke explained, was designed to support the development of Africa / UK Higher Education partnerships to build institutional capacity for higher education engagement in entrepreneurship ecosystems in selected African countries.

Ms Meekness Lunga-Ayidu, the British Council’s Science and Higher Education Programme Manager, said the IAU was a response to the bulging African youth population – expected to double to 830 million by 2050 – yet for whom there are no stable economic opportunities. A third of 420 million African youth between15-35 are unemployed.

Africa’s youth bulge is expected to continue to grow in the future, something that, if correctly harnessed, could increase the working population and support increased productivity and stronger, more inclusive growth across the continent. “If this large cohort of young people cannot find opportunity for participation, it could become a demographic bomb.

Aims of IAU:

  1. To foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship within universities in Africa.
  2. To facilitate the development of skills needed for the young to build industries, companies, products and services.

The British Council supported the establishment of 24 mutually beneficial Africa-UK partnerships aimed at building capacity engagement in entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems. South Africa had the lion’s share – nine – of IAU projects, with six in Kenya and Nigeria and four in Ghana.

Ms Lunga-Ayidu said IAU was built around a problem-solving model, centred on a design thinking approach. Standard partnership grant applications require that the problem being solved is identified along with a solution plan. IAU was different; institutions needed only to have identified a problem in their entrepreneurship ecosystem.

A centre of excellence (CoE) – a consortium of City University, London; the University of Nairobi, Kenya, and ChangeSchool, London – was then appointed to provide capacity strengthening, mentorship and support to the network partners and manage and deliver the programme. Said Ms Lunga-Ayidu: “This team facilitates the knowledge exchange. There are 24 projects in this tranche of activity, with over 89 higher education institutions and ecosystem players who are part of the project.

IAU’s two phases:

  1. Phase One: Partnerships received support through the CoE. They had to investigate the problems they’d identified and begin to design their solutions. “It’s like building the plane while you’re already flying it.”
  2. Phase Two: Project implementation. The teams, close to the end of this phase, will be able to share toolkits.

Ms Lunga-Ayidu said that an additional 11 grants were awarded to projects aimed at supporting community-building programmes within the IAU programme.

Each project’s theory of change has been mapped against these nine core themes:

  1. Curriculum: There are projects focused on developing curriculum related to entrepreneurship.
  2. Policy: There are projects developing policy briefs, holding policy dialogues in order to implement policies that support entrepreneurship within universities.
  3. Enhancing skills. Training, workshops etc.
  4. Mentorship and incubation
  5. Industry-academia partnerships: Critical to the entrepreneurial university
  6. Facilitating access to physical and digital platforms that entrepreneurs need for knowledge and information: There are programmes developing LMS systems, mobile apps, innovation hubs
  7. Funding to ventures: Programmes facilitating opportunities for funders or donors
  8. New idea generation
  9. Events and publications: Sharing of learnings (events, competitions, hackathons, seminars, publications).

Convened under the theme Entrepreneurship #movetomarket, the EDHE Lekgotla 2022, which attracted 107 speakers, unpacked entrepreneurship development from a myriad of perspectives.  Speakers explored ways in which entrepreneurship could address the challenges faced within the broader socio-economic context and its potential impact on the higher education sector.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

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