How to enhance Africa’s university-business ecosystems

As African universities pursue enhanced graduate employability, job creation and knowledge transfer for sustainable development, they must be entrepreneurial in teaching, increase entrepreneurial orientation within study programmes and support start-up companies – along with innovative initiatives to promote cooperation with business.

This emerged from interviews with speakers at a workshop on 19 May titled, ‘From employability to job creation. How to create effective university-business ecosystems in Africa’. It formed part of the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) themed ‘Reinventing Higher Education for a Sustainable Future’.

World Higher Education Conference 2022. This conference is convened by UNESCO and University World News is the exclusive media partner.

Status and significance

Professor Patrick Shamba Bakengela, the director of the Congolese German Centre for Microfinance at the Protestant University in the Democratic Republic of Congo, told University Word News that there is limited cooperation between universities in Africa and the business sector.

“Sometimes, business is invited to participate in conferences, but it is not sufficient,” Bakengela added.

Improved cooperation, he said, “will help to improve the situation in Africa through enhancing graduate employability and job creation”.

Mark Vlek de Coningh, the team leader of partnerships and programmes at the Netherlands Universities Foundation for International Cooperation, or NUFFIC, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education, and Christoph Hansert, the head of the Development Co-operation and Transnational Programmes at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), in a message to University World News said university-business cooperation fosters opportunities and creates livelihoods for young Africans.

“African universities must not be isolated from the needs of African society … [they] have an important role to play in supporting the development of countries and communities,” De Coningh and Hansert said.

Expanding further, consultant Alvira Fisher, the former director of Stellenbosch University LaunchLab in South Africa, which functions as a business accelerator and boosts entrepreneurship on campus, told University World News: “Collaboration between African universities and the business sector offers a great opportunity to make a difference.

“It seems relative to other entrepreneurial thriving economies that Africa still has material strides to take to reach an effective ecosystem between higher education institutions and the private sector.

“University-business cooperation can be a game changer as graduates hold a unique combination of theory and next-generation reality when leaving university and the business sector, [in turn], has the know-how and skills to harness these new and young skills to find innovative ways to bring enhanced change into the industry,” Fisher said.


Bakengela said the main challenge facing university-business cooperation in Africa is a misunderstanding on the areas of cooperation in a win-win situation because, sometimes, universities are seen as producing theoretical knowledge, whereas businesses are seen as focusing on the practical aspect and ignoring theoretical aspects.

“In Africa, we must improve our understanding between theory and practice … a good theory is the understanding of [the] causality of things – it is practical, not theoretical,” Bakengela explained.

“The curriculum is sometimes not adapted to challenges seen on the ground [within the business sector] in Africa,” he added.

Fisher added that “finding time to communicate and create a flowing dialogue is another challenge facing university-business cooperation in Africa”.

“Little insight is gained when information is implied,” Fisher pointed out.

To be business-ready, Fisher said, African university graduates needed a lot of support when completing the academic process as there are often workplace, marketplace and consumer skills deficits that will form the bases of the next steps a graduate has to undergo.

“Supporting entrepreneurship and job creation provides the private sector with the workforce needed along with helping in kick-starting the career of the future professional significantly, allowing them to flourish with confidence rather than taking time to learn from failures,” Fisher added.

An integrated approach

De Coningh and Hansert also emphasised the need to consider learning pathways more holistically.

“An integrated approach, which also brings in business, venture capital and mentorship by businesswomen and men, both nationally and internationally, is needed.

“A good example could be to incorporate fully accredited quality internships as part of university study programmes to link business fundamentals with education fundamentals.

“Setting up business incubators and units for promoting industry-university relations at all levels will also support knowledge exchange between the different parties,” they said.

An interesting example could be the Higher Education Institutions and Business Partners in Germany and in Developing Countries programme that was organised by DAAD, and funded by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to De Coningh and Hansert.

The programme is intended to promote the transfer of knowledge between higher education institutions and industry in order to contribute to the interlinking of institutions of higher education and industry and to expand the dialogue.

It includes several African countries, namely, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal and Tunisia.

Towards effective university-business ecosystems

To tackle challenges facing university-business cooperation in Africa, Bakengela said new solutions were needed to help poor people to access the economy through cooperation between African universities and national, regional and international businesses.

“We should encourage formal cooperation between university and business, mainly, to create a disruptive innovation that we enable people that are excluded to have access to new products and markets,” Bakengela indicated.

He also suggested that universities in Africa have to be entrepreneurial in teaching and must give students the opportunities to experiment ideas in the market and if possible to sell their ideas to businesses.

Fisher added that “sponsored engagement connecting stakeholders must be established, shared agendas and strategies across sectors must be formulated and establishing new initiatives to create training grounds for new innovations from within the academic sector to find a way to test theory in the reality of business” [was necessary].

“Other approaches include establishing online tools designed for collaboration and making connections across geographies possible along with organising programmes that not only bring stakeholders together, but create a strategic connection point to tackle sector problems collaboratively,” Fisher suggested.

To set up effective university-business ecosystems, Fisher stated that “African universities must also increase entrepreneurial orientation within study programmes and support start-up companies through the early introduction into practical entrepreneurial steps to undertake as entrepreneurship is more than just a brilliant idea and what we see online on social media”.

“Work towards value creation takes a lot of work behind the scenes if this can be added to academic learning. We might get a head start with our programme graduates on the continent,” Fisher emphasised.

“University-business ecosystems exist in Africa but, as entrepreneurial practitioners, we should challenge ourselves on whether they are accessible enough and if entrepreneurial ideation is given enough social capital to survive the journey,” she concluded.