By Mr Charles Satumba – Documentation and Communications Associate, ARIPO.
From the beginning of 2018, the government of Zimbabwe has shown commendable seriousness in the setting up of innovation hubs at six of its universities. This initiative is significant as it intends to direct higher and tertiary education in the country towards becoming actively involved in the revival of the country’s economy through the provision of technical and research-based solutions.
Zimbabwe is a prosperous country in natural resources, including minerals, good agricultural soils, a good climate, and many tourist attractions. It also has a very high literacy rate of 86.9%, thanks to the investment in the education sector after political independence in 1980. With such vast natural resources and an educated human capital base, it is a pity that the country has not been able to cross over to middle-income status yet. However, of late, the government has embarked on an ambitious trajectory to become a middle-income economy by the year 2030. The minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development, Professor Amos Murwira, attributes this poor growth of the general economy to the enormous skills deficiency among the products of the education system in the country. As a solution, he believes in a paradigm shift to one that sees tertiary education playing a central role in developing appropriate home-bred innovations and technologies for the local industrial sector. This will help spur the country towards the envisaged status. In pursuance of his vision, higher education in Zimbabwe is now anchored on five pillars: teaching, research, community engagement, innovation, and industrialization. The objective is to narrow the gap between skills that are currently available and those in deficit. This is a departure from the previous system, which was shaped to undertake only teaching, research and community engagement. The purpose of universities under the old system was not to produce goods and services but only to design them. To this end, the ministry has embarked on an ambitious programme to set up innovation hubs at six state universities. The six universities are the National University of Science and Technology, Midlands State University, University of Zimbabwe, Harare Institute of Technology, Zimbabwe Defence University and the Chinhoyi University of Technology.
While the wave of private sector-driven innovation hubs, including university-led innovation ones, such as the famous Silicon Valley in the United States, which was developed around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford universities, has been a norm globally, Africa at large and Zimbabwe, in particular, are lagging behind. Most universities in Africa are churning out graduates who are equipped with theoretical aspects of entrepreneurship, which are only good enough for them to become job seekers. Ironically, the African economies themselves are characterized by high unemployment rates, meaning the ready-to-work graduates do not find jobs in the end. Faced with the high rates of unemployment among young people, it is, therefore, laudable that the government of Zimbabwe is making strides to revolutionize its university education system to make it produce graduates who would become job creators.
The local media quoted the minister saying, “We have started the innovation hubs project. We have started with six state universities where we are saying the innovation hub is a bridge between knowledge and industry.” The goal is to develop a new economy driven by science and technology in a Silicon Valley model of commercialization of research and ideas. On this initiative, the government of Zimbabwe should find comfort in that it is not sailing into uncharted waters as some universities in Africa, such as the University of Nairobi and the American University in Cairo, and South African universities like Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand are already pacesetters, according to Forbes Africa.
As governments’ support for university budgets continues to dwindle, a call for them to commercialize their research outputs becomes paramount. Between 2017 to 2019, ARIPO rolled out roving seminars for its Member States’ universities aimed at helping them understand the potential they hold in the industrialization processes of their countries at large and the benefits that would come directly to them with the commercialization of their research outputs. The universities’ innovation hubs can act as catalysts to development by creating the appropriate environment for developing solutions, product design and skills that industry so requires. The universities can be encouraged even to go beyond their physical fences and accept other innovative ideas from outside their campuses which can see new small companies emerging. According to Professor Van Rooyen of Stellenbosch, “Being in a supportive environment where space and facilities are one less thing to worry about makes a huge difference.” The importance of the idea of innovation hubs in universities is seen in the institutions’ capacity to provide a platform on which students and lecturers from across faculties serendipitously connect and interact, without which platform, they would not get the opportunity to do so. University-owned innovation hubs can become melting pots where heterogeneous creative minds on campuses meet and collaborate. Arguably, the best inventions have resulted from the cross-pollination of ideas. This research-driven collaboration is the most critical strength of university-owned innovation hubs as it eliminates scenarios whereby aspiring entrepreneurs embark on costly try-and-error approaches to innovation.
As the adage necessity is the mother of invention teaches us, a renowned researcher and Chief Executive Officer of the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre in Zimbabwe, Professor Robson Mafoti, buttressed this in a public lecture when he said that the mere fact that the African environment has a myriad of challenges and shortages, creates a very fertile ground for innovation and creativity to take place. Tapping from that, the universities should therefore derive from these many challenges the inspiration to produce unique forms of entrepreneurship, solutions and products using locally available resources.
The possession of natural resources has failed to transform the economies of most African states as the resources are, after extraction, exported raw due to lack of technologies to beneficiate them. Because of this lack of local technological innovations, African states import western technologies at huge costs. Therefore, it is critical to put science and technology development to the fore of all efforts at economic progression. Given this sad reality, ARIPO considers the initiative by the government of Zimbabwe as very positive. However, the government must provide adequate support to the universities, especially in these formative stages, to enable them to commercially produce the goods and services and take them to the markets. Otherwise, the current hype about the innovation hubs can be an exercise in futility.
First published in the ARIPO Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 1, January – March 2019. https://www.aripo.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/ARIPO-Magazine-Vol.-9-No.-1.pdf.