The World Bank-funded Eastern and Southern Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence (ACE II) have faced challenges to commercialise research and innovations, largely due to weak university-industry linkages.
The challenges are also attributable to a nascent innovation culture, made worse by poorly developed government-industry-university relations, where the three entities are not used to working together to grow innovations leading to products and services that impact society.
This is despite making big strides in contributing to the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular to goal number four, advancing quality education, as the centres have trained thousands of graduate students from across Africa.
Leaders from the 24 centres in the region, who gathered for a three-day meeting in Entebbe, Uganda, said that while commercialisation of science was a critical part of research and innovation processes, it was a slow process, sometimes ridden with bureaucratic bottlenecks that could discourage budding innovators.
The speakers, who gathered from 22 May, told the technical and advisory meeting of the project that while universities were at different levels of development, some lacked critical enabling infrastructure, including policy frameworks and guidelines to support commercialisation.
This meant that the centres had to initiate and ensure that the requisite conditions for commercialisation of knowledge are in place, greatly benefitting universities, not just the centres.
This is because universities recognised that the benefits from university-industry partnerships can lead to economic growth, generate wealth and create employment.
“In the case of our centre we realised there was a need to establish a commercialisation office, and develop Intellectual Property (IP) tools to support both students and academia in commercialising products they have developed,” said Professor Hulda Swai, the director of the Africa Centre for Research, Agricultural Advancement, Teaching Excellence and Sustainability at Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, Tanzania.
“Unlike in the developed world countries such as the United Kingdom, where university and industry are closely linked, the culture of working with industry is not so well entrenched in our universities,” she added.
This also made financing of start-ups from innovations difficult, with banks largely used to financing established businesses to minimise risk.
At times students lacked technical mentors to guide them through the steps towards commercialisation, while in other instances obtaining licences from regulatory authorities was a cumbersome process, Dr Emmanuel Ufiteyezu of the African Center of Excellence in Energy for Sustainable Development at the University of Rwanda, told the event.
“The absence of mentors from the private sector to guide students and reluctance by institutions to fund young innovators are some of the challenges we have to overcome,” he noted.
Even with the challenges, the centres were overwhelmed by the number of innovative ideas that students came up with whenever a call was made, indicating a huge quest for innovation in universities, according to Dr Casim Tolo who heads the Pharm-Biotechnology and Traditional Medicine Centre at Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda.
“We have, however, noticed a missing link in the ability of young innovators to come up with a Proof of Concept, and a lot of investment should go to helping innovators develop it. Seed grant money is also needed to provide impetus, and ensure that young graduates are fully supported so as not to be discouraged,” he added.
Overall, translating science into products and services remained a slow process that can be overcome through a number of actions, the three-day meeting heard.
One of the actions taken by the Center of Excellence in Phytochemicals Textiles and Renewable Energy based at Kenya’s Moi University was to establish an office of technology transfer, and develop an IP policy, said Professor Ambrose Kiprop, the centre leader.
This was besides developing a commercialisation strategy, and starting a faculty consulting business development office, he added.
“Commercialisation of research is a resource mobilisation opportunity for academia and value addition to research, and with the potential to address societal problems,” the professor said.
Apart from the commercialisation of research, the centres had learnt vital lessons on how to make themselves more sustainable, including the need to enrol more fee-paying graduate students.
They often attracted less fee-paying students as well as fewer female students, explained Professor George Owuor, the leader of the African Center of Excellence in Sustainable Agriculture and Agribusiness Management (CEESAAM), Egerton University, Kenya.
This could be done by internationally accrediting programmes offered by the centres to attract more foreign students who could pay their own fees, away from project provided-scholarships, he suggested.
There was, therefore, a need to raise support for female students, into various postgraduate programmes offered, and an even greater need to support young mothers to help them settle down.
“At CEESAM we have managed to support young postgraduate mothers by offering them accommodation within the university to enable them concentrate on their studies”, Owuor noted.
According to Professor Gaspard Banyankimbona, the executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, who hosts the Regional Facilitation Unit of ACE II, the centres and the incubation hubs are seen as the “model that can help the African higher education sector to create impact”, by contributing not only to SDGs but to the African Agenda 2063 as well.
“This is by advancing the vision of the Africa we want, whose young people are employable, an Africa that is free from hunger and malnutrition, an Africa whose people are competitive in the global arena for science and technology, and an Africa whose people are respective to their natural environment,” he added.
“The Technical and Advisory Meeting was therefore called to discuss the role of higher education through research and innovation in achieving SDGs, commercialisation of research outputs and sustainability of the project,” the secretary explained.
The government of Uganda had finalised a concept paper for the impact phase as successor to the current project, and is looking forward to working with other willing governments in the region, to unveil plans to sustain the ACEs beyond their end of life in December 2023, said Ketty Lamaro, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Education and Sports.
“The ACE II project is leading a renaissance of higher education in the region for quality, market-relevant postgraduate education, and collaborative research capacity building in the regional priority areas of industry, agriculture, health, education and applied statistics,” she said.
Started in 2016 with US$140 million World Bank funding, the ACE II initiative has 24 centres in at least 16 universities across eight participating countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi.
It was designed to support governments of Eastern and Southern African countries in addressing higher-level skills development needs and innovative research requirements for the region’s priority development sectors, through strengthening the capacity of selected higher education institutions.
While the project ends this year, the World Bank in 2022 approved additional funding amounting to USD70 million under the ACE II – additional Financing (ACE II-AF) initiative, which will see an additional five centres set up in Southern Africa.
The ACE II-AF will continue in target countries of Mozambique and Malawi with the additional centres focused on agriculture research and innovation, for another two years up to 2025.
So far ACE II has enrolled at least 6,825 postgraduate students, 1,395 of them in PhD programmes, and of the total 2,445 are female.
This has led to the publication of more than 3,251 research papers in internationally recognised journals, while 338 research collaboration Memorandums of Agreement (MOAs) with private sector and other institutions have been signed.
A total of not less than US$40 million in external revenue has also been generated, he added.