Africa needs ‘innovation universities’ to develop – Juma

Africa must create ‘innovation universities’ if it is to achieve economic transformation, sustainable development and inclusive growth, says Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government. Universities should combine research, teaching, outreach and commercialisation in a coordinated way.

Juma outlines his innovation universities proposal in a discussion paper, “Education, Research and Innovation in Africa: Forging strategic linkages for economic transformation”, published in February 2016 and drawn from his forthcoming book tentatively entitled How Economies Succeed: Innovation, entrepreneurship and prosperity.

Innovation universities, Juma writes, would need clear visions and strategic plans that focus on practical applications and include comprehensive roadmaps for moving research from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Emerging trends, technologies and institutional landscapes need be mapped, including in higher education, innovation and emerging technologies relevant to Africa’s development. “Emphasis should be on identifying technologies that offer opportunities for leapfrogging.”

The new universities would need innovative new curricula that address local needs, and would serve as innovation hubs. They would need to define how to best recruit, retain and prepare future graduates, and would break from the common practice of teaching carried out in universities that do little research, and research conducted in institutes that do no teaching.


When Juma lays out ideas, people listen.

A globally respected authority on the application of science and technology to sustainable development, aside from professorial duties at Harvard Kennedy School he is director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and directs the centre’s agricultural and health innovation policy projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Juma provides policy advice to governments, the United Nations and other international bodies, chairs the Global Challenges and Biotechnology committee for the United States National Academy of Sciences, and is co-chair of the African High-Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology of the African Union or AU.

In the discussion paper, Juma points out that Africa is a youthful continent, with nearly 41% of people under 18 years of age.

“To address the unique challenges of this demographic structure, the African Union has adopted a 50-year Agenda 2063 to help guide the socio-economic transformation of the continent with particular reference to the youth,” he writes in the abstract.

“One of the objectives of Agenda 2063 is to reposition the continent as a strategic player in the global economy through improved education and application of science and technology in development. The African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa, 2024 – STISA-2024 – provides an initial 10-year framework for pursuing this goal.”

The AU technical committee on education, science and technology could “play a strategic role in guiding and fostering the reforms needed to improve the integration of education, research and innovation”.

Juma’s paper proposes the creation of ‘innovation universities’ that combine research, teaching, community service and commercialisation in their missions and operations.

They would depart from the common practice where teaching is carried out in universities that do little research, while research is done in national institutes that do no teaching. This model provides “little connection with productive sectors”, says the abstract.

“The idea therefore is not just to create linkages between those activities but to pursue them in a coordinated way under the same university structure. Innovation universities can be created in diverse fields such as agriculture, health, industry, services and environment to advance sustainable development and inclusive growth.”

Two ‘innovation universities’ strategies

Juma writes that there are two strategies for pursuing innovation universities.

The first is to strengthen research, community service and commercialisation in existing teaching universities. The second is to set up new innovation universities in line ministries, public corporations, private enterprises and development agencies.”

Since the first strategy is already being pursued, he focuses on new innovation universities.

“The ministries or agencies responsible for higher education will need to be creative and flexible enough to foster the creation of such universities while granting the autonomy necessary for them to advance their specialised innovation objectives.”

There would be two important budgetary implications, Juma writes.

“First, it will broaden the base for funding innovation by enabling specialised actors to design and operate new universities using their own budgets. Second, this will reduce the need to rely on funding from ministries of education. It will help to reduce the potential competition for funds between tertiary education and lower levels of education.”

Juma argues that creating innovation universities will require high-level coordination because of the presence of numerous governmental and non-governmental actors, and that the offices of presidents and prime ministers should be involved.

“To support heads of state and government in coordination, it is strongly recommended that an Office of Science and Innovation Advice be created in every country, taking into account the prevailing constitutional order.”

“Such offices should be created by law with clear mandates to focus on advisory functions and not operational activities, which should reside in the line ministries.” They would be similar to the offices of chief economists who support heads of state and government.

How to create innovation universities

One approach to creating innovation universities, Juma proposes, could be to upgrade selected national research institutions, technical colleges and research institutes located in line ministries. Opportunities would also lie in public corporations and big infrastructure projects.

National research institutions, Juma argues, could provide a strong foundation on which to create new colleges and graduate schools combining research, teaching, community service and commercialisation. However, creative approaches are needed to add graduate teaching functions to the institutes.

He cites the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute in Uganda, which has sufficient in-house expertise to form the basis for Africa’s first biotechnology innovation university.

Juma suggests that most African line ministries and public corporations have research and training institutes that could be upgraded to serve as graduate schools focusing on the missions of each ministry.

For instance, Tanzania has created three new innovation-oriented universities under the Ministry of Communication, Science and Technology. Ethiopia has set up 24 new universities and has started migrating some to the Ministry of Science and Technology.

He suggests that large infrastructure projects in Africa should not go to waste but should offer unique opportunities for expanding technical training and innovation. “The failure to design the projects as learning centres is a wasted opportunity to promote innovation universities.”

He cites one obvious example, the huge Square Kilometre Array radio telescope being built in South Africa and Australia with outstations in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. “It can form a suitable basis for creating a regional innovation university on all aspects of space engineering,” says Juma.

He also cites the US$5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which could train young people in diverse engineering skills related to hydropower projects.

Champions are needed to pilot the idea of innovation universities at the national level, while pilot initiatives could result in best practices for advancing the idea of innovation universities.

Challenges, opportunities

Juma concedes that creating innovation universities will be a challenge because of current low levels of investment in higher education and research. Another challenge is that very few African universities have updated curricula or use teaching methods that promote innovation.

He also says that finding a cadre of people with expertise in innovation management will be difficult, but can be achieved by offering executive education to high-level leaders responsible for policy and the implementation of innovation programmes.

In the long run, such courses should be part of the curriculum of the new universities and should be required for those seeking to work as innovation managers.

He suggests the newly established Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Africa, or TIE-Africa, executive programme at the Harvard Kennedy School as an example of a way to strengthen innovation management capacity. Inspired by STISA-2024, TIE-Africa was launched in 2015 with a US$1 million gift from the Schooner Foundation.

“The programme represents a unique opportunity for helping to build innovation management capabilities among African high-level policy-makers as well as universities. Such training programmes could be supplemented by study tours that may be a more effective use of financial resources than the common practice of conferences and workshops.”

Some responses

Steven Ssebale, head of human capital development at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology, said it was true that Africa had an innovation vacuum. “The drive for innovation is a new paradigm for universities and research is not funded,” he said.

Ssebale pointed to other challenges. Innovation is a spin-off of research, but donors fund much of the research and Africa does not have its own research agenda. Also, many universities operate outside intellectual property rights and there is no market for innovations.

He wondered about funding. “We would love that innovations are at the forefront of universities but it comes at a cost. The models we can use should speak to local contexts. We can aspire to have innovation universities but not in the near future,” said Ssebale.

Ambrose Kibuuka, an education and career guidance consultant in Uganda, described Juma’s innovation university proposals as a “very transformative concept and very practical too with some modification”.

Kibuuka said Juma was awakening universities to the fact that they have abandoned their central purpose – research. “I think what is he putting forth is simply an innovative practical strategy to put universities back on track.”

But instead of advocating for separate innovation universities, he added, “we should be bold enough to candidly and radically reform universities. This is not only an easier option but will also help to sort [out] the mess in the broader spectrum of higher education.”

“I feel that if Juma had spent enough time and space on the issue of educational philosophy and methods, not only would his prescription have taken a slightly but critically different direction, but he would have appealed more to the people in higher education,” said Kibuuka.

“Now he appears as if he wants to chop their enclave of power and control.”