Innovation drive, network connectivity are yielding results

Although university reforms in Cameroon that embrace digital innovation and entrepreneurship training, including network infrastructure, are yielding results according to some academic leaders, the government wants to see greater leaps in training of university graduates whose tenacity and creative thinking will help to advance the country’s economy.

Cameroon’s Minister of Higher Education, Jacques Fame Ndongo, says the lack of adequate investment in research and innovation is a major setback in the country’s Vision 2035 economic development drive as mapped out by President Paul Biya.

Speaking at the launch of the 4th edition of the ‘Detecting Genius and Talents of Cameroon’s Higher Education Students’ in Yaoundé, the minister said: “The deficiency in research and innovation that can drive the country’s economy is lamentable because it is acknowledged universally that research and innovation are the bedrock of the successful development of countries around the world.”

Cameroon, like many other countries in Africa, cannot emerge economically through continuous borrowing and ‘rubber-stamping’ technology, as is the norm today, he added.

It is against this backdrop that the government, through the ministry of higher education, initiated, some three years ago, the detection of geniuses and talents within the university system that will in the future constitute the ‘think tank’ on innovation and research in the country.

The government, through the ministry, organises students’ creativity exhibitions annually where they showcase creative arts, start-up projects, development and business-oriented projects, with a team of judges and a selection committee picking out the best innovative and research projects for funding by the government in partnership with the private sector.

The talent detection scheme accordingly emphasises the professionalisation of training, a project that higher education authorities estimate will yield 50% of its outcomes by 2025.

“The ultimate objective of the scheme is to equip Cameroonian graduates and make them potential creators of wealth and jobs,” said Professor Samuel Nko’o, the general inspector of services at the Cameroon Ministry of Higher Education.

In view of attaining Vision 2035 (an emergent economy) as contained in the Growth and Employment Strategy Paper of the country, several measures were put in place, among which is the Economic and Financial Programme with the International Monetary Fund, which heralded several reforms that also touched on the higher education training programmes.

According to government figures, more than 25 business incubators from the private sector (through Groupement Inter-patronal du Cameroun or GICAM, in French) currently exist in public and private universities.

This year’s launch of the ‘Detecting Genius and Talents of Cameroon’s Higher Education Students’ at the end of October was held under the theme, ‘From the professionalisation of teaching to the employability of higher education graduates: The challenges of digital technology and funding’.

Changes in higher education

Higher education authorities say the optimism and encouragement in higher education that prevailed in 1993 when universities were decentralised in Cameroon to foster social-cultural development had long withered, giving place to civil service-oriented university trainees.

“The societal and developmental setbacks Cameroon faces today are a reflection of a failure in establishing viable education in universities, prioritise research and quality standards of innovation and practice, quality leadership and management structures, that can move the country to expected levels,” said Professor Joyce Endeley of the University of Buea.

But the government, through this scheme, is fast changing the narratives, Endeley said. The government also facilitated the professionalisation of training through the digitalisation of universities’ teaching and learning processes, with all state universities being inter-connected.

In order to ensure the digital transformation of Cameroon’s universities through digital teaching and administrative activities in universities, President Paul Biya in 2018 created the e-National Higher Education Network.

The network project comprises several main components: the manufacturing in China of 500,000 laptop computers that were distributed to students from public and private universities in Cameroon; the construction and equipping of nine ultra-modern university digital development centres, including one in each state university and one centre at the Congo-Cameroon Interstate University at Sangmelima, and the putting in place of a virtual network for the interconnection of state universities and the ministry of higher education.

According to officials of the ministry, the project now enables students and university staff to enjoy quality internet at a higher-speed bandwidth compared with what they had in past years.

“For years, students and lecturers suffered a low-speed network which made it difficult for our quality system of education to be exposed to the rest of the world, and disrupted distance learning. With the partnership agreement that has been signed, universities will have 40 to 50 times [better] quality network bandwidth at an affordable cost,” said the ministry’s Nko’o.

For the students, the laptop project has been beneficial. “Laptops are learning tools that cannot be acquired by just any students. These gadgets permitted many university students to take an interest in digital technology and we can see the results today,” said Ngoh Solomon, a graduate from the University of Yaoundé 1, who owns and runs a cyber café in Yaoundé.

To reinforce the universities’ inter-connection network, the ministry of higher education and Cameroon Telecommunications, or CAMTEL, signed a partnership agreement in line with the government’s desire to modernise the national system of higher education in the country.

This has further facilitated the interconnection of all state universities, easing inter-university academic exchanges and facilitating professional teaching and collaborative research learning processes.

Fruits of technology reforms

According to the Director of the University Institute of Technology, Professor Mohammadou Bouba Adji, and the Rector of the University of Ngaoundere, Professor Uphie Chinje Melo, the technology and digital reforms, coupled with entrepreneurship training, are yielding results.

At the ‘Detecting Genius and Talents of Cameroon’s Higher Education Students’ technology hub projects stood out as some of the best emanating from the country’s university reforms, which has been pushed by the government since 2013.

Successful technology hubs on exhibition at the event included the Silicon Mountain technology ecosystem cluster in the university town of Buea. It is currently home to tech start-ups and a growing community of developers, designers, business professionals and universities.

According to Professor Owona Nguini of the University of Yaoundé II in Soa, tech hub businesses emanating from the university’s digital technology training orientation have had a disproportionate impact on tech innovation and entrepreneurship, including success stories like GiftedMom, a mobile health platform that uses low-cost technology to help mothers and pregnant women access medical advice in out-of-the-way, rural communities, and Njorku, one of the biggest job search engines in Africa with more than 50,000 site visits each week, available across 15 countries in Africa.

“These tech hubs are highlighting local solutions for a sustainable digital economy and have become fertile grounds, just like universities [focused on] self-employment oriented training,” Owona Nguini said.

Professor Endeley of the University of Buea said: “The societal and developmental setbacks faced by Cameroon today are a reflection of our failure [in the past] to establish viable education in universities, prioritise research and quality standards of innovations and practice, quality leadership and management structures that can move the country to expected levels.”

The government, through the digital technology reforms, is fast changing the narratives, added Endeley.

This has been facilitated, among others, by the improved digital network between institutions. According to information from Cameroon’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the number of incubators receiving state support at the different institutions has grown.

Between 2017 and 2020, the number of hubs and incubators has grown by about 20 times, and in the area of start-up investments. Some start-ups have raised funds within the ecosystem while most are still in the infancy stage, using the lean methodology.