Tapping into the innovation potential of universities

A new generation of young African entrepreneurs and innovators, keen to contribute towards the alleviation of poverty and address global development challenges, is being nurtured in a number of universities on the continent.

A four-year partnership between the Higher Education Solutions Network, or HESN, and the ResilientAfrica Network, or RAN is helping to channel the innovation activities of university students, researchers and academics towards global development. The HESN is backed by USAID.

According to HESN division chief Ticora Jones, the HESN views higher education as a valuable and necessary partner for advancing development impact. Through its partnership with RAN – a network of 20 African universities in 16 countries looking to use innovation to enhance resilience – HESN has engaged thousands of African students and faculty members.

HE as a development partner

“In general, our vision for higher education is that it be seen as a valuable and necessary partner for advancing development impact,” she told University World News.

According to Jones, African university students and professors who are also innovators and researchers are well-placed to contribute to the alleviation of poverty and other development challenges, but they need support.

According to Jones, we live in a time when science, technology, innovation and partnership have redefined what is possible. Based on this understanding, USAID channels the technical expertise of scientists and researchers from around the world to help solve global development challenges.

HESN, a multi-disciplinary research and development effort led by seven universities (six top US universities and Makerere University in Uganda) works to evaluate and strengthen real-world innovations in development. It helps to build and accelerate science and entrepreneurial potential to meet community needs by supplying local potential with emergent tools and giving them the space to solve some of these problems.

Among the beneficiaries of RAN support is Brian Gitta, one of four Ugandan students at Makerere University who created a company for a smartphone-based screening tool for malaria, called Matibabu.

Cheetah generation

Gitta is arguably a good representative of the so-called “Cheetah Generation” – a term coined by Ghanaian economist George Ayittey to describe a new cohort of young entrepreneurs perceiving business opportunities from social challenges – a philosophy that dovetails with that of HESN.

According to Gitta RAN provided mentorship to the Matibabu team through sessions with professional coaches on key topics in the development process, such as design thinking, rapid prototyping, and business model canvassing. All these aspects have helped the team build capacity to run its business, he said.

“Matibabu is now in the validation process. This includes working on acquiring approval from our three targeted test markets: Uganda, Angola and Nigeria. We chose these countries because they have a high number of malaria cases, according to the World Health Organisation’s 2015 malaria report,” he told University World News.

According to Jones, many HESN programmes work jointly with African universities to accomplish mutual goals. For instance, the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, based at Michigan State University, supports faculty researchers at Malawi's Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources through grants and workshops on communicating their findings to lawmakers and development organisations.

Multi-disciplinary collaboration

According to Jones, while there is a strong desire at universities around the world to collaborate among disciplines, there are few incentives. To address this, multi-disciplinary collaboration was a programme requirement from the beginning of HESN, which has since provided a structure for engineering, political science, public health, business, agriculture, and other university departments to tackle global development challenges collectively.

Through HESN, USAID has created a constellation of eight development labs that give university students and faculty the opportunity to incubate, catalyse and scale science and technology innovations.

RAN has engaged its network of universities in Africa – four of which are regional hubs with unique resilience priorities – to conduct research on the drivers of resilience and consult communities to find innovative solutions to the most pressing challenges. The universities also bring together non-academic partners, such as government agencies, the private sector, civil society and development practitioners.

Successes and challenges

Since its launch in 2012, the partnership has supported more than 200 innovations in over 50 countries and provided over 900 development-related research or fellowship opportunities to students. Furthermore, the reach of the project has expanded, with HESN labs engaging over 600 partners, including governments, NGOs, private companies and higher education institutions.

RAN casts a wide net for good ideas through three main approaches including crowdsourcing innovation to identify innovations with the highest potential to impact resilience, prioritising community needs, and co-creation of design projects.

Among the innovations that have emerged are: RootIO, a community radio powered by a mobile phone; a low-cost solar-powered irrigation pump; the Trust Insects for Food project in Limpopo Province in South Africa; the Mopane Worm for Improved Income Generation project in Beitbridge, Zimbabwe; the Innovative Rainwater Harvesting Technologies to Improve Access to Safe Water in Ethiopia; and the Grass Fuel project, an alternative to wood fuel in the Upper East Region of Ghana.

However, there have also been challenges. According to Jones, one of HESN’s biggest challenges has been connecting researchers and innovators with their “customers” who include communities, individuals, other innovators, governments and others who could help to inform and tailor research or innovations.

Collaboration requires trust, so HESN has focused on building an ecosystem designed to inspire co-creating, co-designing and co-inspiring. “This has led our HESN Labs to look at impact in human terms – not just impact as data,” said Jones.