Last week’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme’s 2023 Kick-off event, which doubled as the Academia-Industry Training: Swiss and African Science and Business Innovators Programme (AIT-SASBI) Spring Conference 2023, became an opportunity to showcase Africa’s talent and ground-breaking innovation.

The Day One programme on 22 February included business ideas pitching by 10 students representing Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa. The aim was to select successful prototypes for showcasing at the SASBI 10-day residency programme at the University of Basel in June. All three participating countries are member partners within the SASBI programme. The enterprises, all aligned with the conference theme of Social and Tech-driven Innovation for Impact, ranged from innovative digital health platforms, conversion of carbon dioxide in the creation of light energy and blockchain for the creative economy, to repurposing plants and waste products in response to climate change challenges.

South Africa’s first selected start-up was Igugu Clean Tech, which aims to supply industries with biodiesel produced from a nicotine-free tobacco plant, Solaris. 

Igugu Clean Tech was founded by Ms Zinhle Ngidi (above), a Higher Certificate in Business Management graduate from the University of Pretoria’s Gordons Institute of Business Science. She participated in the  pitching contest through the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), South Africa’s national facility seeking to bridge the gap between research-induced innovation and commercialisation. TIA is in a tripartite partnership with the University of Basel, and Venturelab, in the Swiss-South African Business Development programme (SSABDP).  Venturelab is a global non-profit organisation whose aim is to develop the next generation of innovators and changemakers through entrepreneurial learning. 

Ngidi is marketing Solaris-sourced biodiesel as a cleaner product that burns longer while being friendlier to automobile engines, and the environment. She wants to see her product replacing regular diesel because of the latter’s high nitrogen dioxide emissions. She told the conference audience that the KwaZulu-Natal floods of 2022 spurred the turning point of her business, which had been undergoing research and development since 2016. This catastrophic event underlined the need for businesses to rethink mechanisms to minimise the negative impacts of their operations on the environment. 

South Africa’s second start-up to be picked was Lola Green, a company that converts waste products such as plastic into sustainable construction materials. The founder, Mr Matimba Mabonda (above), a Master of Science, Chemical Engineering student at the University of Cape Town, said his business is a response to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 13, which looks to combat climate change challenges. 

Having worked closely with his father, a bricklayer, he had noticed the increasing demand for green and sustainable construction products. Lola Green’s products, bricks and roof tiles, are eco-friendly, durable and fire-resistant. Mabonda told the conference audience that the construction material currently in circulation is responsible for at least 11% of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. He aspires to reduce those emissions by 40% in the next seven years. 

Mabonda also mentioned that Lola Green is marketing its products to eco-property developers who continue to pursue relevance by switching to green and sustainable construction.

Joining the two South African enterprises at the Swiss resident programme will be One Trail, a Nigeria-based ed-tech company that has created a platform enabling companies to identify skills gaps in their employees. Mr Mubarak Lawal (left), the owner and Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Ibadan, explained that One Trail uses artificial intelligence tools and tracking software to monitor and source data when users (that is, employees) undertake online courses. The technology works when added as an extension to internet browsers. It then begins to work in the background, monitoring the user’s learning activities and aggregating these onto one platform where employees, and their employers, can see their performance. 

Mubarak said with today’s rapid technological growth and the ever-changing skills requirements, companies cannot afford to be limited to costly yet ineffective traditional upskilling programmes. By contrast, his platform tracks individuals’ mastery of new knowledge when they undertake online learning courses, thus enabling the employer to identify their company’s skills strengths, and gaps, and to set out to fill vacancies accordingly. Mubarak said this data can also be used to tailor organisational goals.

The fourth enterprise to be picked was Rwanda Green Lighting, that is all about harnessing airborne electrical energy to power street lights and areas that are still off the grid in Rwanda. Chief Executive Officer, Ms Diane Mumararungu (right), said they are looking to reduce greenhouse emissions while producing renewable energy for Rwanda.

Rwanda Green Lighting uses Direct Air Capture Technology to attract carbon dioxide, which after processing into sodium hydroxide to obtain sodium carbonate, then undergoes electrolysis processes. The end product then lights up the streets for people in the off-grid regions. While admitting that it was impossible to reverse the impact of global warming, Mumararungu said their innovation, that reduces airborne carbon dioxide, should contribute to some positive change.

Endless opportunities await the innovators in Switzerland  

Ms Nanci Govinder (left), an Angel Investor, Entrepreneurship Trainer and Advisor to global start-up companies and incubators, who moderated the business pitching session, brought to the audience’s attention that Switzerland, ranked among the most innovative countries in the world, is constantly on the lookout for new ideas. This includes sourcing new products, services and opportunities for their suppliers and manufacturers, hence AIT-SASBI’s pursuit for collaborations with other innovators. 

She said selecting student start-ups for the AIT-SASBI residency programme in Switzerland presented an opportunity to create traction for their businesses, such as finding new customers, increasing their revenue base and continuing with validation of their ideas through product pilot testing. By participating on that platform, industry players are enabled to source new suppliers and manufacturers in the event of supply chain disruption, as witnessed in South Africa’s constant load shedding. Lastly, the residency programme is an opportunity to build brand equity with high-profile customers, partners and other key people who choose to join the enterprise boards or teams.

Although only four out of the 10 business ideas will proceed to the SASBI residency programme in Switzerland in June, the other six will benefit from the continuing AIT-SASBI networking opportunities in their regions. Ms Govinder announced that they would connect these start-ups to industry players that complement their businesses for the exchange of best practices and mutual learning.

In closing, she commended the entrepreneurs for their courage, resilience, fortitude, dedication and commitment. “I think there has been tremendous learning for all of us here, in terms of how these start-ups are creating impact in the world. I do hope that some of their technologies and services can be adopted,” she said.

The Academia-Industry Training: Swiss and African Science and Business Innovators Programme (AIT-SASBI) Spring Conference 2023, which also doubled as Universities South Africa’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme Kick-off event for 2023, was attended by 207 delegates representing student innovators, senior academics including deputy vice-chancellors and industry 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.  

Although the Swiss-South Africa partnership for the advancement of education, research and innovation was formalised through an agreement in 2007, relations between the University of Basel and Universities South Africa’s EDHE programme were only established two years ago. According to Mr Eric Thaler, Senior Manager: Global Partnerships at the University of Basel, Switzerland has over the years enjoyed wonderful relations with South Africa, thus opening immense opportunities for start-up companies and cooperating universities.

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant at Universities South Africa.

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