Enhancing university-industry linkages for ‘rising Africa’

The role of universities in social and economic development in Africa cannot be gainsaid. Tertiary education equips individuals with skills to fit the job market. Quality university education has spilled over at macro-economic level. It is now recognised that improving university education has a positive impact on gross domestic product.

Among other benefits, enhancing university education can help the continent through technology to catch up with the rest of the world. This is important at a time when the ‘Africa rising’ narrative is gaining currency.

While the number of students graduating from African universities is increasing, the Sub-Saharan region has a lot of ground to cover in improving university education stock to match the rest of the world.

As Africa seeks ways to improve university enrolments from a current 5% to 7%, it must provide more high-quality, technically oriented training to students. How can this be done?

One way is to build sustainable linkages between universities and industry. Although this is easier said than done, it is possible.

A recent conference on agriculture at Kenyatta University in Nairobi was told that researchers and innovators in African universities hardly meet with entrepreneurs and counterparts in the private sector, and therefore undermine their roles in informing the pace, form and direction of social-economic advancement on the continent.

Institutions of higher education therefore need to, as a matter of urgency, invest in structures that link students to industry, especially now when the global economy is shifting from the West to East, with Africa — and specifically the Sub-Saharan region — shaping up as the fulcrum of this change.

The burning questions

The underlying question is how to make sure that higher education is linked to current market needs, notably for boosting multi-dimensional productivity — that is, growth that enhances holistic national progress, encompassing social and economic dimensions.

How do we ensure university students are trained for these purposes?

Both sides recognise the mutual benefits and the potential spill-over to the economy. Universities know that if they are to remain relevant, they need to train graduates fitting the job market, and concretise and try out concepts created in the real world.

Many industries now acknowledge that to successfully innovate, they cannot exclusively rely on their internal research and development. They know that universities could open up great opportunities to an enormous global pool of talent and skills.

The challenge is how to close the gap between the two. The barriers include the fact that the ‘match making’ process can be problematic.

First, both universities and industries have different expectations.

Often, universities interested in pursuing linkages and technology transfer do not know where to look for companies that need certain technologies. For their part, industries may find it difficult getting specific expertise in universities. This makes engagements ad hoc, piecemeal and short-term.

There is also mutual fear over patents, loss or ownership of property rights and sharing of benefits. In addition, universities and industries have different work rhythms and ethics.

On the one hand, university bureaucracy and timelines may slow down cooperation. On the other hand, industrial research and development is time-sensitive, driven as it were by the need to create products that quickly meet existing needs.

Solving problems

So how do we solve these problems?

A first step is to create space for dialogue between entrepreneurs and academia. Generally, any dialogue between industry and universities should be based on a clear understanding of the comparative advantage on each side — a foundation of shared purpose, where each partner is clear about what assets they will bring to the table.

Each party needs to clearly define and communicate the purposes and expectations associated with the collaboration. Communication is of paramount importance for the whole process to succeed.

Specifically, universities could take several steps. First, if universities and industries are actively researching for partners, it should not be difficult to find some.

Second, universities should expand their understanding of the needs of industry and link these needs to academically sourced solutions.

Third, there should be an emphasis on industry-focused degree programmes, at all academic levels. In this, universities should encourage a business mentality during training.

African governments should facilitate increased dialogue between industry and universities through appropriate policies.

A model

A government-university-industry framework could take the following profile: the government sets a policy framework for cooperation and offers ‘seed money’. Universities and companies contribute the bulk of the funds. The graduate is employed by the company.

For the university, the main role is to prepare students with entrepreneurial mindsets.

A version of this kind of preparation is being undertaken in some East African universities. Students are trained in various aspects of entrepreneurship. The programme, known as Student Training for Entrepreneurial Promotion or STEP, is action oriented and combines psychology and business. It trains students to seek the balance between the world of concepts and the brutal world of the real business environment.

Students are given seed money, US$100 and then have to come up with an idea which should be translated into a money-making business. The students contribute at least US$10 for the start-up. The seed money must be refunded at the end of the three-month project.

Although this is geared towards students formulating their own start-ups, it nevertheless prepares them in a very practical way for the world of industry, albeit to be their own bosses.


Close university-industry collaboration is a win-win situation.

The company gains up-to-date expertise and a network of contacts in academia. The university obtains reality based knowledge and connections to the business sector. The candidate can complete a degree and gain research-related work experience at the same time.

Meanwhile, universities should have frameworks for tracking alumni who have joined the world of business. While higher education institutions require practical attachments for their students, there is little follow up after attachments.

Few universities have databases for their students’ linkages to the practical world during or after training, yet graduates who have gone through intensive university-industry linkage programmes could offer valuable feedback from their experiences.

African universities must also invest heavily in an enabling environment for research and research capacity development. This must include programmes focusing directly on the human component in order to raise the capacity of individuals and build a critical mass of competent researchers.

Dr Patrick Mbataru teaches at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. Email: