Universities, students take the lead in industrialisation

Innovation in Zimbabwe seems to be flourishing under tough economic circumstances as the public sector and local entrepreneurs work hard to foster high-quality new ideas and techniques aimed at surmounting some of the country’s biggest obstacles.

Zimbabwe’s industrialisation agenda also appears to be on course, with institutions of higher learning coming up with technological solutions to national problems.

In July 2021, the University of Zimbabwe’s innovation hub came up with two inventions targeting social protection after producing a smart blind stick and a pharmacy locator application.

The smart blind stick is based on obstacle detection and object avoidance technologies, thus providing efficient navigation for the visually impaired. The pharmacy locator application is integrated with GIS and Google maps to locate medication at the nearest pharmacy.

Speaking to University World News, Leo Muchenje, the 24-year-old University of Zimbabwe’s Innovation Hub research trainee graduate who developed the pharmacy locator web application, said he developed the app to provide the public with better access to pharmacies dotted around towns, cities, and other parts of rural areas in the country.

“The innovation is all about making life easier when looking for medicine here in Zimbabwe. There are emergencies where there is no time to go to pharmacy after pharmacy looking for medicine.

“Information on where to find medicine should be readily available to the public,” Muchenje said. He is a computer science major at the University of Zimbabwe, focusing on developing mobile applications, web applications and websites.

App brings medication to patient

His pharmacy locator application features an interactive platform, showing the nearest pharmacy that sells the specific medication. Users can also see the pharmacies that accept their medical aid and pharmacies that deliver medication at their homes.

The innovation is funded by the ministry of higher and tertiary education, innovation science and technology development.

Zimbabwe established innovation hubs and technology parks at various institutions to find solutions to the country’s pressing problems as well as attain the country’s economic blueprint, the National Development Strategy 1.

One of the major goals is to create economic opportunities by developing a new generation of young people with an entrepreneurial mindset. In April 2021, the Zimbabwean Parliament passed the Centre for Education, Innovation, Research and Development (CEIRD) bill into law with the aim of creating a technology hub to harness and coordinate research and innovation in universities and colleges, as well as in industry.

The Zimbabwe Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development, Professor Amon Murwira, has often emphasised the relationship between education and technology in developing the nation.

“An education without technological innovations leads to poverty. We need a configuration of human capital to meet the vision,” he told parliament when the CEIRD bill was passed.

The innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of Zimbabwean students was on display on 25 June 2021 when three Zimbabwean graduate students at Oxford University in the UK won the top award and £10,000 (about US$13,764) for the best idea in the All-Innovate Ideas Competition.

All-Innovate is Oxford’s inter-college idea competition run by the Oxford Foundry in partnership with Oxford colleges. Students (undergraduate and postgraduate) pitch entrepreneurial ideas for a chance to win the top prize and two runner-up prizes of £5,000 each.

The budding entrepreneurs’ winning pitch centred on a fast delivery service in Zimbabwe that would accelerate online commerce.

The students who came up with the winning Takura Couriers idea are Tafadzwa Matika, Dennis Mazingi, masters students in international health and tropical medicine, and Chido Chigwedere, who is studying towards a masters degree in business administration.

Number plate project a modern touch

Zimbabwe has also started to utilise institutions of higher learning to fill some of its industrial needs. On 18 July 2021, cabinet approved the Zimbabwe National Vehicle Number Plate Project to improve the national capability to produce registration plates locally.

Speaking to the media, Murwira said the production of plates that have been in short supply would be co-ordinated through a national project implemented by a consortium of universities and colleges at their innovation hubs.

“Zimbabwe has the capability to produce new number plates and develop a modern vehicle registration system that will save us foreign currency and utilise local resources and skills,” Murwira said.

The country intends to produce new number plates that will meet world design standards that use radio frequency identification tagging to optimise the use of road space, reduce non-compliance, enhance toll and parking authentication, combat vehicle crime and fight terrorism.

Zimbabwe faces supplying enough number plates for new vehicles and vehicles that have been on the roads without plates for many months. The Zimbabwe National Roads Administration says that about 170,000 vehicles on the country’s roads are not registered.

According to the Central Vehicle Registry, Zimbabwe’s vehicle population has been increasing rapidly and currently stands at about 1.3 million.

In other developments, the University of Zimbabwe plans to begin cooking oil production and value addition to most of their farm produce. The university said that, through its Agro-Industrial Park, launched earlier this year, it will be channelling all its produce for further processing to promote self-sustainment.

The inclusion of 14 African countries in the global top 100 start-up ecosystems by the Global Start-up Ecosystem Index 2021 report released on 17 June by StartupBlink indicates that Africa’s start-up ecosystem trajectory is on the move.

Zimbabwe was not included in the top 100, but it is, nonetheless, making strides. Zimbabwe is home to one of the eight African start-ups named as technology pioneers of 2021 by the World Economic Forum.

The progress in innovation by Zimbabwe and other African countries could be enhanced by the Centre of Excellence in Science, Technology and Innovation that was launched on 22 June 2021 by the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) in partnership with South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Stellenbosch University (SU).

The AUDA-NEPAD CoE-STI provides a continental platform for supporting and sourcing funding and other resources for the up-scaling, dissemination and localisation of proven innovations from research and partner organisations.

The centre will connect African-driven knowledge and research hubs with other knowledge and research ecosystems across the continent. It will also act as a platform for innovators to access alternative options regarding how to reach their clients when rolling out new solutions.

“Through the CoE-STI partnership with CSIR and SU, AUDA-NEPAD is proud to act as a channel to connect African innovators to governments and clients to roll out and localise these home-grown solutions,” Dr Ibrahim Mayaki, the CEO of AUDA-NEPAD, said at the launch of the programme.

“The AUDA-NEPAD centres of excellence will bring innovative and agile solutions to scale in critical sectors affected by the pandemic,” he said.