Entrepreneurship is all about using creativity and innovation to build or improve a product with an added value. When applied to universities, entrepreneurship means turning knowledge generation and transfer (teaching and learning) and academic research into developing practical approaches and solutions. Understanding the mechanics of this process is lacking in many academic institutions, and particularly in developed countries. Finding a way to embrace entrepreneurship will require higher education institution in Africa to enhance their understanding of the process and to address specific challenges. And as African universities embark on the entrepreneurial journey, they can already learn from success stories happening on the continent.
African universities at the crossroads of entrepreneurism
One of the development parameters for Africa is the churning out of quality human resources from the higher education sector. Home to the world’s most youth population, Africa stands to become a global game changer if the full potentials in the youth are harnessed. Currently, Sub-Sahara Africa is not reaping the expected returns for the investments in the higher education sector even though the gross enrolment rate of an abysmal 9% is well below the global average of 38%.
The prospects of building the skills of this burgeoning African youthful population and ensuring equity, access and quality of education require innovative approaches that build robust systems, including the full integration of ICTs in teaching, learning and administration as well as the ability to operate sustainably. The responsibility primarily lies with the academic leadership. Everything rises and falls with leadership. Beyond that, the responsiveness of the academic curricula to labour market needs and strategies for financial sustainability are also critical.
Academic leadership at the centre of entrepreneurial endeavours
The academic leadership, in the context of instigating entrepreneurial endeavours, includes but is not limited to the principal officers of the institutions such as rectors, vice chancellors or presidents and their administrative organs, as well as the University Councils (Board of Trustees), the regulatory and accreditation bodies, the various Ministries of Education, and all strategic stakeholders of education.
Academic leaders are responsible for giving the strategic directions of for higher education to thrive, and often, these are embedded in their institutions’ vision and mission statements, strategic plans and other policies that instigate change processes in academic operations.
The entrepreneurial curriculum stimulated by the outbreak of COVID-19
Compounded by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the current environment of uncertainty and complexity within which African higher education operates calls for a radical transformation of traditional teaching, learning and research towards a more engaged, productive, and innovative. The entrepreneurial pedagogy requires retooling of teaching methods, blended case study with project work approaches and integrating indigenous knowledge in the teaching of new knowledge, skills and value systems. It should necessarily include the extensive use of ICTs in computer simulations, e-learning, and information sourcing, etc.
Financing entrepreneurship in African higher education institutions
Financial sustainability is also key in entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurial universities endeavour to build financial backbones to support their endeavours. In many African universities, the fixation is on establishing business ventures that generate internal funding to support campus activities. South Africa’s Witwatersrand University has the Wits Enterprise; Stellenbosch University has its InnovUS Technology Transfer PTY Ltd; and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology has its JKUAT Enterprise Ltd as their financial backbones.
Universities in advanced countries, on the other hand, have perfected in embracing the third core mandate of higher education - ‘community engagement’ - which, broadly speaking, encompasses all external activities undertaken by universities, including but not limited to linkages with industry, civil service organisations, professional bodies, philanthropic organisations, and alumni associations, among others. They rake in billions of dollars annually in research grants through such effective linkages. Community engagement is still at its nascent stages of development in Africa universities but is gaining currency. The establishment of subsidiary companies within the learning institutions are serving as one-stop service centres to promote and protect patents and commercialise excellent innovative ideas often generated by the researchers, staff and students.
However important financial entrepreneurship and community engagement may be for African universities, they still need to look strategically to explore and embrace other approaches to sustainability. Some interesting examples can be found on the continent. Makerere University in Uganda, for instance, is profiled in Africa as an entrepreneurial university because of its emphasises capacity building, research productivity, and policy development. In addition, it has built multi-pronged external linkages as well as engages in strong community outreach which provides feedback that enriches the teaching curriculum of the academic staff. The university is touted to be a major contributor to the pool of entrepreneurs in Africa.
Obstacles to entrepreneurship in African universities
Despite the positives that entrepreneurship holds for African universities, there militating factors that need immediate attention. The policy environment is still not robust enough to protect African innovations and inventions. Even as members of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), most Sub-Saharan African countries possibly still have domestic laws that conform to international laws but do not cover the intellectual output produced within the countries. This trend taper into the operational environment of African universities that nudge academics to publish research findings as there are no encouragements for the pursuit of innovations, inventions and commercialisation.
Recommendations to stimulate entrepreneurship in African universities
This article is a written as a call for a common agenda to build resilient institutions of higher learning that respond positively to the needs of the African society.
First, it is obvious that the concept of entrepreneurship is yet to be fully understood in Africa. Thus, the maximum potentials to be tapped from operating full-fledged entrepreneurial universities are yet to be realised. A concerted effort is needed, especially in the policy space, for unambiguous guidelines for entrepreneurship to blossom on the continent.
Next, sustainable financing and responsive curricula to labour market needs are integral to actualise universities entrepreneurial endeavours.
Also, in rigorously pursuing their third core mandate of external linkages, institutions of higher learning should ensure a fair partnership arrangement in which both party wins.
Finally, to promote commercialisation from university research outcomes, academic leadership as referenced above should push for national and institutional policies that promote and support concerted efforts at innovation and inventions for their researchers who serve as universities’ brand ambassadors in the global research community. Overall, research commercialisation will boost the visibility and financial sustainability of the universities that support their staff.
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