Commercial ventures: Should universities set up businesses?

Reforms instituted in Zimbabwe’s public higher education sector in the past five years have contributed to commercial ventures cutting across 16 sectors, including the establishment of 100 student-run start-ups.

This is according to a report detailing the achievements in Zimbabwe’s higher education sector between 2018 and this year, the first five-year term of the country’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Last month, Mnangagwa, who came to power after orchestrating a coup to topple long-time ruler Robert Mugabe in November 2017, won Zimbabwe’s presidential election for a second and final term allowed under the constitution.

Professor Amon Murwira, the minister of higher and tertiary education, innovation, science and technology development, in a recent statement accompanying the document, said the government’s first achievement was to align the higher education sector to the country’s developmental goals.

This saw it adopting the so-called heritage-based learning encompassing teaching, research, community service, innovation and industrialisation to produce job creators, replacing the Mugabe era’s 3.0 education system that emphasised teaching, research and community service that produced job seekers.

But in the context of a struggling economy, the brag book about the ventures has also fuelled criticism rather than applause from some quarters.

Zimbabwean professor of economics Dr Gift Mugano told University World News the government’s policy on university start-ups is misplaced.

“If you are telling me as a professor of economics that the government of Zimbabwe has pushed a policy in universities to drive start-ups and the universities have achieved over 100 start-ups when we do not have solutions to the economic challenges which we are facing … then I don’t know if there is anything meaningful taking place at those universities,” Mugano said.

University-based businesses

Murwira provided more detail about what the businesses are about. He said that at the University of Zimbabwe the government established a bakery, an edible oil plant, a livestock feed processing plant, a puff production plant, a laparoscopy centre and a national trans-tech solutions centre.

“We are establishing a specialist quinary hospital at the University of Zimbabwe. This is the industrial park of the University of Zimbabwe medical school.”

“At Chinhoyi University of Technology we have established six industries across different sectors of the economy – clothing, sanitisers and detergents, livestock feed, dairy, beef production and artificial insemination,” the report said.

The Harare Institute of Technology started a software development company, which has produced several products such as the ‘Tap Card’ system being used by state bus company ZUPCO to receive payments from passengers.

The report said the country had established agro-innovation industrial hubs at seven state universities.

About 260 ha were put under wheat at Marondera University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, while Manicaland State University of Applied Sciences carried out research that culminated in planting tobacco varieties.

Tackling societal problems

Said the report: “At Midlands State University [MSU] we have established five industries: [a] food processing industry, chemical processing industry, clothing industry, health industry – MSU National Pathology Research and Diagnostic Centre – and the Agro-Industrial Park at Pittscotie in Kwekwe.”

Mirirai Mawere, the director of marketing and communication at MSU, told University World News that the MSU National Pathology Research and Diagnostic Centre, which was set up at the institution, is a disease control, disease surveillance and disease prevention centre.

“The centre was established to advance the field of pathology in Zimbabwe and beyond through the provision of world-class health services,” she said.

Anderson Tawanda Chipatiso, the information and public relations director of the Great Zimbabwe University, said that, after the education system was remodelled to include innovation and industrialisation, the university established a textile factory which has a multipronged purpose.

“The factory serves as a practical laboratory for students who are studying design and textile. We prepare our students to be independent post-university. So, once you go through that factory, which is equipped with all the necessary equipment, you will be exposed to industrial standards and you are prepared to start your own project.

“Secondly, the textile factory serves as part of the industrialisation agenda. We produce goods for consumption by communities,” he said.

“During the COVID-19 era, the factory came in handy for the benefit of both ordinary [people] and those in the medical field by manufacturing PPE [personal protective equipment]. Post COVID-19, the factory is serving as a source of school uniforms for our communities.

“We have signed several MOUs [memoranda of understanding] with schools throughout Masvingo province and throughout the country. In that manner, we have reduced the cost of procuring uniforms by communities and we have also gone on to producing dust coats, overalls and other forms of protective wear. The factory has also been a source of employment for tailors, designers and other people.”

Student start-up success

In a separate interview with Ryan Katayi, who founded the start-up Farmhut Africa while a university student at the National University of Science and Technology, he told University World News his company is now an established business in both Zimbabwe and Zambia.

In 2021, Farmhut Africa, an AI-powered marketplace connecting farmers to markets that pay fair prices for their produce, secured US$100,000 in grant funding after being selected as one of the winners of the annual international Hult Prize Competition.

Katayi said the guidance of university lecturers in setting up the start-up was invaluable.

The role of universities

Although some of the businesses are contributing to their communities, economics professor Mugano remains concerned about the model pursued by the Zimbabwean government.

“I have concerns because universities must not be competing with companies. Universities must complement the work that companies are doing.

“So, when you hear a university is going into the business of setting up a company, then do you think [how] the same university will develop new knowledge for the same company in the same industry for economic progression when the university is competing with the same company?

“Universities are not supposed to be going in the direction of setting up companies. The business people, the entrepreneurs are out there. Universities must help them grow their companies and cash in on consultancy services and fees they charge for the use of their knowledge,” he said.

He said universities should tie their income to these services.

“To set up a company and compete with business is a wrong model. It does not work. You should go to Cuba and see what they do in the medical fraternity. They develop new technologies for medicines in each province where there are diseases.

“So, universities participate in research and development, which is what is important, and then they develop a product that is commercialised at company level.

“And pharmaceuticals produce vaccines and drugs, but a university is part of the game through research and development – not to develop the drug and put it into pharmacies. That is a wrong model.

“Universities are not there for that purpose. They are there to be a centre of excellence of knowledge, where everyone who wants to come will come to a well of knowledge,” Mugano said.