Uganda based Makerere University is already considered to be Africa’s second most research-intensive University. Vice-Chancellor Professor Barnabas Nawangwe and his team have built a network of academic partners that include elite international Universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tsinghua University.
Now with a vision to be East Africa’s innovation hub, Makerere University is building new ties with the private sector and launching a business incubation unit within the university to support the commercialisation of African ideas and research.
Africa’s potential will only be fulfilled if the drivers of innovation in private sector companies can work with the continent’s leading Universities to foster research & development on the continent. Prof. Nawange tells AfricaLive of Africa’s renaissance in research and calls for more engagement with industry to accelerate African development.
AfricaLive: How would you identify the role of Makerere University in creating the next generation of skilled Ugandans?
Prof. Nawangwe: I can proudly say that for nearly one hundred years we have been the engine of growth for our country and, to a greater extent, the region. We have, therefore, played a role in developing critical human resources for the area.
However, Makerere University now realises that it is not good enough to stop at just creating human resources. Our objective is to become the region’s engine of growth, and we can only do that by being a research-intensive University. We are soon launching our next ten-year strategic plan whereby we intend to transform our institution to become a more research-intensive University. Through research and innovation, we will be able to impact the economy more meaningfully. To achieve this, we are going to have to increase the number of graduate students who will stimulate research and gradually reduce the intake of undergraduate students.
Our philosophy is to become the innovation hub of this continent, and that’s what we are pursuing now.
AfricaLive: What are the steps that you intend to take to reach the status of a research-intensive University?
Prof. Nawangwe: The first thing we will do is to revise the admission requirements and to increase the ratio of graduate students. To do this, we are appealing to our government to resume sponsorship of postgraduate students. We all know from what is happening around the world that for us to have an innovative economy, we need more people training at graduate level (Masters and PhD). There are indications that the government is buying into our proposal, and we are going to work towards ensuring that it happens. We’ll also encourage other international and local funders to concentrate on funding graduate programs. It will help us develop that critical mass of researchers and innovators for our country and our region.
The second thing is that we have to put in place is the necessary infrastructure for research and innovation. We have, over the past few years, revamped our laboratories and other research infrastructure. I believe we have the best internet connection on the African continent, at least outside South Africa. We have one of the best libraries, and we have got a lot of online journals. However, we want to increase that. We are looking for funding to ensure that we have flawless internet connectivity to enable our researchers to research information from around the world without any problem.
We also want to work on improving the academia-industry relationships. We have many young people who have a lot of brilliant ideas, and they come up with exciting business proposals and prototypes. All that remains in the laboratories as they go out and begin looking for jobs when, instead, they could create jobs themselves. We, therefore, want to set up a vibrant business incubation unit at the University, working jointly with our young but budding private sector. The private sector will help us take on these innovations or join the government in funding research. Our goal is to see these innovations developed into real businesses through this incubation unit.
AfricaLive: When do you expect this business incubation unit to launch? How would you provide a supportive framework to foster entrepreneurs and startups in Uganda?
Prof. Nawangwe: Well, I should say that we already have some incubation units within the University. The most successful ones are the incubation unit in the IT sector and the incubation unit on food value addition. Those two are working very well but on a small scale. What I want is a more prominent University-wide incubation centre. We will continue working on other incubation units in different areas as we work towards this primary incubation unit. I estimate that this should be ready in about two years.
AfricaLive: How do you see technology disrupting education in Africa? What steps should higher learning institutions take to ensure they remain relevant?
Prof. Nawangwe: We realise that we can’t go through what people have called “Evolution of devolvement”. We don’t just want to follow what the rest of the world is doing, but we want to be part of it. We are therefore investing in artificial intelligence, and we have the most prominent school of computing in this continent. We are working with the government to ensure we have the most modern laboratories.
We are linking up with some of the best Universities in this area like MIT, Tsinghua in China, and the Southern University of Science and Technology in China, and universities in India. We only need to have the resolve and to be focused on what we have.
AfricaLive: What should the future of Research and Development be for Uganda?
Prof. Nawangwe: The African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) is an initiative of eighteen research Universities in Africa which aims at increasing our contribution to research. I am happy that Makerere is considered the second most research-intensive University in Africa. We believe we can still improve our research output in a short time if we do things right.
Outside the ARUA, we as Makerere University would want to increase our research output by at least three times in the next five years. Our biggest strength at Makerere is in the area of Health Research, where we have contributed a lot to research on HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Malaria, among other health issues. We have also made some tremendous progress in Agricultural Research, with Makerere Regional Center for Crop Improvement. We address issues of climate change and food security.
AfricaLive: What is the message you wish to send out to our readers and across Africa?
Prof. Nawangwe: The issue of stereotyping Africa as if only bad things come from Africa has to change. We are contributing, albeit not so much at the moment, to the global knowledge bank. In many areas, including health research, agricultural research and cultural research, we have the potential to contribute to worldwide research, and we are currently at a renaissance.