Mission to build capacity in Africa has a French twist

The world’s largest French/English bilingual university already welcomes 2,000 Africans to its campus and has created a network of research hubs in 15 African countries – the Open African Innovation Research (Open AIR) network – and is now seeking to tap the world’s fast growing Francophone population by forging new peer-to-peer relationships with a dozen African universities.

An agreement signed last November between Université d’Ottawa (uOttawa) and 12 African universities has formalised previous ad hoc relationships between the university and a dozen French African counterparts, including institutions in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Benin.

“There are two parts to the agreement,” says Adel El Zaim, uOttawa’s chief internationalisation officer. “First, we want to help build capacity in African universities we have been working with for a number of years.”

The second part of the agreement focuses on African students coming to uOttawa.

In order to avoid falling into the trap of pre-determining what African universities needed, uOttawa brought representatives of the 12 universities to Ottawa to meet with various faculties.

“Before they even arrived, we had meetings during which we prepared the faculties for some of the differences between the way things worked here in Ottawa and what our visitors expected,” says El Zaim.

Different countries had different needs and priorities. Several were interested in developing joint programmes in business, engineering, nursing and bilingualism. While a developing country like Côte d’Ivoire’s interest in civil engineering required no explanation, its interest in quickly developing a programme in sports and leisure was surprising.

“It is, however, a good example of a specific need not easily seen from the vantage point of Canada’s capital: Côte d’Ivoire will be hosting the Africa Cup of Nations in 2023,” El Zaim said.

The 2,000 African students on uOttawa’s campus make up a quarter of the 8,000 foreign students studying at uOttawa where the total student population is 34,000.

“African students have been coming to Ottawa for years but until now on an ad hoc basis. They had to do the research and make the application on their own,” says Alain Malette, senior director of enrolment management. “Now, we will be able to have people on the ground in different countries who can explain what the university offers them.”

These representatives will also help with applying for study permits, visas and will meet with the students’ families to explain the process and how education at uOttawa works. To further prepare these students for uOttawa, they are paired with mentors who connect with them through social media and chat with them for as long as four months.

Building capacity

Equally importantly, uOttawa hopes to build capacity in Africa so that African students can do part of their studies in their home country before coming for a final year in Ottawa or at the masters level.

“Right now, the flow is unidirectional from Africa to Ottawa,” says Malette. “Our hope is that that will change and Canadian students will go to Africa for the first years of programmes and then return here bringing their experiences into our classrooms.”

African students would also go to Ottawa for the later part of their programmes.

For uOttawa, Africa has another importance. “As a bilingual university we have a special mission for French,” says Malette. “The future of French is in Africa because of the demographics.”

The largest French-speaking country in the world is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with a population of more than 80 million, 10 million more than in France. “If we want to be part of the development of French, to help maintain our bilingual heritage, we have to be involved in Africa,” says Malette.

In order to encourage French African students to come to uOttawa to study, they are charged the same tuition fees that Ontario students are charged, approximately CA$4,000 (US$3,000) per semester. At present there is some aid offered to African students, who are allowed to work on campus, for example as teachers or research assistants, or, if undergraduates, as paid mentors.

In a time of budgetary restraint, as is presently the case in Ontario, it is not obvious to the general public what the benefits are of having foreign students studying there. While discussing this point with Natalie Morris, the international student support services manager at uOttawa, she answered with a personal anecdote. When she was a visiting student at the University of Barcelona in Spain, she took an optional anthropology course.

“We were talking about the Inuit in Canada. The professor had the opportunity to ask questions of someone who is from the country how we perceive relationships with the Inuit. He was able to get a Canadian perspective on a Canadian issue being studied in class.”

Internationalisation of the campus provides this opportunity to our students here, Schorr added.

Central to supporting foreign student success are mentors like Melissa Delalie Houinson, a second-year health sciences student from Benin. Mentors help newly arrived students with such things as finding an apartment and directing them to the university’s writing centre if they are having trouble writing in French.

If a student does not live in a dormitory, one of the biggest and most immediate problems students can face is housing. The problem is not just that the vacancy rate in Canada’s capital is 1.85%.

“One of the problems in finding a place to live is food. Africans tend to cook with a lot of spices, and our food is very strong smelling. That can make it difficult for us to find apartments or share apartments,” Houinson has found herself explaining to newly arrived students.

She also helps newly arrived students navigate some of the social differences between their home countries and Canada. “When I came here, my mentor explained to me that when you meet a professor to discuss your work or you have an interview, you have to look him or her in the eye and give a strong handshake. This is not something we do back home. But I have told this and even shown them how,” she says.

The Open AIR research network was established in 2015. The 15 African universities involved include the American University in Cairo and institutions in Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa. “We are looking at the global knowledge economy and how Africa is already fitting into it,” says Schorr.

Series of research hubs

The network is a series of hubs in which researchers work on areas such as 3D printing. For example, Dembo Diob, a local inventor in Dakar, Senegal, came to Thomas Hervé Mboa Nkoudou, who is affiliated with an Open AIR entrepreneurial hub, with the prototype of a 3D printer that was capable of printing objects of higher quality than many commercial 3D printers at a fraction of the price. Most high-quality 3D printers retail for US$2,500 but Diob’s cost US$450.

Nkoudou considered this a textbook example of the difficulties African entrepreneurs have in developing their products. The informal sector is full of local players capable of overcoming difficulties, often at lower cost. The problem is how to provide them with the business tools they need to succeed.

The 3D printer Diob designed is notable, Nkoudou says, for “its robustness, the ease of troubleshooting it locally and its cost”. To help kick-start Diob’s business, Nkoudou ordered one.

Meanwhile, at the University of Cape Town, Professor Tobias Schonwetter is working on intellectual property and technology law – as well as being on Open AIR’s steering committee. Instead of looking to developed countries, Schonwetter and the researchers working with him are seeking to turn this narrative on its head and “show the rest of the world that it can learn a lot from Africa” in the area of artificial intelligence (AI).

Specifically, the team he leads studies “contextual law and policy-making in South Africa and the entire region”. Their goal is to “understand the emergence of AI across the continent of Africa”, including the effects of gender on the development of AI.

Three thousand miles to the north east of Cape Town, Professor Isaac Rutenberg at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya, is working on understanding what he calls the “innovative [development] ecosystem in the region”. His work began with examining how the tech hubs in Nairobi and Lagos function.

“It has now grown into a wider review of the factors that affect innovation and entrepreneurship. It is clear that tech hubs remain quite important in fostering an environment conducive to innovation, but there are other important factors and we are seeking to understand those,” he told University World News in an e-mail.

Back in Ottawa, Schorr underlined that uOttawa’s role in Open AIR is not to determine what the scholars and researchers in Africa should be working on. Rather, it is to facilitate links among scholars working in diverse fields thousands of miles from Canada and each other.

While Open AIR is partially funded by government granting agencies, the payoff for uOttawa is more than helping Africa scholars and researchers with their work.

“In a globalised world, it is imperative that our professors and our graduate students have access to the cutting-edge work being done overseas,” she says, before giving an example of a law professor who is able to incorporate into his or her class research developed by Open AIR on intellectual property.