Enterprising researchers: Making a difference in Southern Africa

An award-winning team from Cambridge, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia has been bolstering entrepreneurship in Southern Africa and supporting some exciting new ventures in the process.

Around 20,000 people in Botswana are hearing impaired. With little support, they struggle to access critical services such as healthcare and banking. Many are unable to cast their vote. Children, who account for more than half of the deaf population, often fail to receive even a basic education and thus have their life chances limited from the start.

This is something aspiring tech entrepreneur and ICT Associate at the Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI), Lucia Otsetswe-Moapare wants to change. Her solution is a mobile app which both teaches sign language and translates it and which she hopes will be adopted by schools, banks and hospitals to deliver services to this disenfranchised community.

In 2019, Otsetswe-Moapare was one of 17 entrepreneurial researchers from three southern African universities taking part in a knowledge exchange programme with the University of Cambridge.

In 2018, six of the world's top 10 fastest growing economies were in Africa. 2019 saw an 11 per cent increase in foreign investment across the continent.

An article in The Economist, published at the end of March, gave further (pre-COVID) grounds for optimism about the continent's economic trajectory pointing, amongst other things, to "the emergence of a start-up culture. Last year [2019] venture-capital funds invested about $1.3bn in new African firms, an increase of more than 600% over the $200m invested in 2015."

The pandemic has brought an abrupt and devastating halt to any further progress, with the UN warning that it will disproportionately affect the world's poorest nations.

But back in 2019, when what The Economist was calling a "start-up boom" had started to gain ground and coronavirus was on no one's radar, researchers and knowledge exchange professionals from Cambridge and three southern African universities took part in a remarkable back-and-forth set of visits.  

According to BITRI’s Director of Partnerships, Bathsheba Mbongwe, the idea for this programme germinated when Cambridge researchers visited BITRI in 2018. They started to talk about "the need for universities to work in partnership with local industry in order to achieve societal impact" and about how best "to establish academia-industry innovation ecosystems."

At around the same time, the University of Namibia was developing its vision for the future, with innovation, enterprise and community engagement firmly at its heart. Lúrio University (Unilurio), a technical university in the north of Mozambique, was similarly tasked with increasing the number of entrepreneurs emerging from its portals.

From these converging conversations an ambitious knowledge-exchange programme emerged, involving more than 50 participants and 10 institutions.

What do we mean by “knowledge exchange”’

Definitions vary, but in essence, it is about sharing knowledge developed inside universities with communities outside those universities. “Knowledge” is broadly defined to include ideas, information, skills and experiences. The “exchange” part is critical: this is not a one-way process, but is designed to bring insights from outside the university back in. Its goal is to create or expand the impact university-devised knowledge has on the world.

This particular programme had three main aims. The first was to share Cambridge's experience and expertise with the three Southern African universities as they build their capabilities to commercialise their own intellectual property.

The second was to identify areas for ongoing research collaboration between the universities in areas which will have significant and lasting impact. And the third was to help Cambridge evolve the support it offers to other universities looking to maximise the impact of their research.

“It was a fantastic opportunity for us to work closely with our knowledge exchange and technology transfer counterparts in Southern Africa.

The insights we gained from the experience will inform our training and capability development activities so that we can continue to offer targeted and effective support to our many university partners."

At the heart of the programme were the 17 impressive examples of entrepreneurship - including Otsetswe-Moapare's - already underway in Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia.

They were presented at the first workshop in Botswana where Cambridge experts were on hand to share their knowledge of research commercialisation. Alongside researchers in topics such as innovation management, intellectual property and industrial sustainability were a team from Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s technology transfer arm, with a wealth of experience in commercialising intellectual property.  

As well as looking at how each of the entrepreneurs could improve their own chances of success, the group also considered the “innovation ecosystem” and the critical role policymakers, universities and businesses need to play in it in order to create a thriving entrepreneurial community.

Although the Cambridge context is clearly very different to the African one, hearing how the Cambridge Cluster has evolved into one of the world’s most successful innovation ecosystems offered some useful insights.

For João Salavessa, founding Director of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Unilurio in Mozambique, the Cambridge story gave them, “lots of new ideas which is important for us right now. We need more entrepreneurs and we have a lot of opportunities. If our students can develop their ideas and work for themselves, it is a benefit both for them and for the whole country."

For the 17 entrepreneurs the next stage was a visit to Cambridge for some practical workshops covering topics such as how to develop a business plan, how to carry out and benefit from market research and how to make a compelling pitch to potential investors.

"The partnership with Cambridge was an eye-opener in how to engage with industry."

For Otsetswe-Moapare, currently exploring partnerships with Botswana’s Ministry of Education, banks and hospitals to support the take-up of her app, "the programme was perfect timing for me as I was just at the commercialisation stage. I learnt a huge amount but the two things that really changed my approach were understanding the importance of market research and that negotiations are all about building long-term relationships."

In Mozambique, Ramula Issa, a researcher at Unilurio, is also committed to making a difference to people's lives.

Food security remains one of the most pressing challenges in sub-Saharan Africa. Pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan) could be part of the solution. They are already an important source of protein and micro-nutrients for many Mozambicans but a lack of processing technologies means that much of the harvest is often wasted.

Until her project was put on hold by the coronavirus, Issa had been exploring how to turn her PhD in nutrition into a business. Her goal is both to help farmers better preserve the harvest and its nutritional composition using new technologies, processes and packaging and also to create a new range of pigeon pea-based products - such as cookies - which would be affordable and appetising, have a long shelf-life and a high nutritional value.

Her trip to Cambridge proved to be an important catalyst: "When I was researching, I was only thinking about the research. Experts from Cambridge not only showed me it was possible to create a business but gave me the skills to go about it."

There's still much to be done and Issa is looking forward to restarting the project as soon as she can. "Food security is such a big problem. We need to make sure that the research we do makes a difference."

Dr Bathsheba Mbongwe, Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (left) and Dr Sara Serradas Duarte, Cambridge Global Challenges

Dr Bathsheba Mbongwe, Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (left) and Dr Sara Serradas Duarte, Cambridge Global Challenges

The success of the programme has been recognised by the UK's leading professional body for knowledge exchange practitioners. Earlier this year, it was awarded the prestigious PraxisAuril UKRI Team of the Year 2020 Award.

Dr Sara Serradas Duarte from Cambridge Global Challenges, the driving force behind the initiative, said: "The two aspects of this programme that were fundamental to its success were listening and jointly learning.

"The starting point was the needs of the institutions in southern Africa but as a result of the projects all of us in Africa and the UK have become better equipped to deliver knowledge exchange and to collaborate on new research."

But winning an award is by no means the end of the story. Research collaborations between the universities are progressing in areas such as microbial and electrochemical energy production systems and medical sterilization and water remediation.

The participating universities are putting in place mechanisms to support research commercialisation. Unilurio, for example, has set up CADI, the Centre for Academic Development and Innovation, to deliver its own entrepreneurship training and a knowledge-exchange Agribusiness Unit in conjunction with the Mozambique government and with funding from the African Development Bank.

Unilurio is also using its new expertise to forge stronger connections with big business - an important component in any successful ecoysystem.

"There is currently a gap between the universities and companies, mostly because of a lack of trust and a lack of awareness about what we are doing. We need to change that and find ways of working with each other. It's really important that the big companies hire local people," said Salavessa.

In November 2019, in partnership with the Cambridge Global Challenges team, Unilurio delivered three workshops designed to persuade industry and government that they need to work with their local universities which, said Salavessa, "were an important starting point in making that happen."

As all countries face the daunting task of rebuilding their COVID-ravaged economies, it is now more important than ever that universities are able to turn their research into economic and social value. In Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia, that means supporting inspiring young entrepreneurs like Issa and Otsetswe-Moapare as they pursue their dreams of improving the lives of the people around them.

This pioneering programme has helped to strengthen the entrepeneurial capabilities of three southern African universities. It has also helped Cambridge develop the support it is able to give to other universities wanting to do the same. That sounds like a productive exchange of knowledge.

Cambridge Global Challenges is the Strategic Research Initiative of the University of Cambridge that advances the contribution of its research towards addressing the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals in the Global South. 

Cambridge Enterprise , part of the University of Cambridge, supports academics, researchers, staff and students in achieving knowledge transfer and research impact. Liaising with organisations both locally and globally, its offer expert advice and support in commercialisation and social enterprise. 


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