Walter Sisulu University (WSU) Vice-Chancellor Professor Rob Midgley has called on universities and the private sector to change their relationships with local communities. The philosophy at WSU follows that by breaking the long-held perception of isolation and engaging actively with the communities, they can bridge the gap between industry and the needs and knowledge of locals.
The launch of an innovation centre at the university is driving it towards its next stage of development.
Through a diverse range of courses and research programmes, WSU is demonstrating that universities can be the bridge between local know-how and future technologies. With a particular emphasis on agriculture and medicine, the institution places great emphasis on engaging with indigenous knowledge in an academic setting. The baton should not just stop at the mere engagement between the higher institution and the community. Rather, the relationship should proceed to incorporate indigenous knowledge in the crafting of solutions for both local and global challenges.
Prof. Rob Midgely
Speaking during an interview with AfricaLive.net, Professor Midgley explained “We don’t just research on the chemist medicine you are accustomed to; we also delve into medicine derived from indigenous knowledge. One of our most notable research products is herbal tea that was made using the recipe of a traditional healer.”
This, alongside other developments in cannabis research, makes for an approach that dovetails perfectly with the United Nations’ push to use native knowledge to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Prof. Midgley expounded, “Incorporating indigenous knowledge is important because it helps us to stay rooted in the community. Those who provide this indigenous knowledge also get economic benefits and skills.”
He added, “Though we are rooted in local communities, we have a global outlook. We do not prepare students to be confined to their communities; we want them to venture far and wide.”
The institution is creating spaces that allow inspiration, creativity and innovation to thrive, propelling development in local communities and beyond. There is an innovation centre that allows for the development of ideas and ushering the resultant products into the local and global market.
The disconnect between universities, local communities and industry
South Africa’s universities have long been striving to strengthen ties with industry. It is only more recently, in most cases, that engaging local communities and members of society has been seen as a necessary part of universities’ innovation systems.
According to Lester Brian Shawa from the School of Education – Higher Education Studies at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa, universities in the country agree that community engagement is part of the duties of institutions of higher education. Nonetheless, an overwhelming majority of these same universities relegate this kind of engagement and collaboration to the periphery of their mission.
Several African universities allocate negligible slivers of their budgets to community engagement. This challenge stems from the fact that there is hardly any recognition within the institute for faculty members who positively impact the surrounding community.
Henry Mugabi, a Ugandan researcher based in Finland at the University of Tampere studied the makeup of the relations between East African universities and their local communities. Singling out the University of Nairobi and Makerere University, he found that promotions and recognition hardly took into account any contribution to the community by the faculty member. With this kind of mentality, faculty members deem community engagement as a pointless undertaking.
Without strong community-university engagement, several advancements uncovered by researchers will remain just that – theories floating around the hallowed halls. Local businesses and communities miss out on knowledge that can fully unlock the potential of their operations.
The reverse is also true. Research into areas like pharmacognosy – as earlier illustrated by the herbal tea and cannabis research – benefits greatly from indigenous knowledge. Severing the ties between university and community will more than likely lead these studies to grind to a halt.
Strong local presence, Strong global impact
Founded in 2005 through the merger of three institutes of higher learning – Border Technikon, Eastern Cape Technikon and the University of the Transkei – Walter Sisulu University (WSU) is relatively young. Therefore, this fledgeling institution is still finding its feet in terms of identity.
Nevertheless, the university has embraced its role as a rural university, servicing students from poor and working-class families in rural South Africa. Despite being historically disadvantaged, the university is not settling for making an impact in the local community. Instead, it eyes a much larger role in leaving a sizeable footprint on a global scale.
Prof. Midgley said, “As an institution that is just fourteen years old, one of our main goals is to develop a strong identity. We want to have not only a strong local presence but also a global impact.”
To accomplish this, the university zeroes in on training that will have a direct impact on the local economy. Additional focus is centred around research and innovation that will leave a lasting global impression.
“Though we are still in the initial stages of our business development programme, we can make a huge impact. Our main focus is on agribusiness since we are located in an area with rich soils and a favourable environment. We are training small scale farmers who will boost local economies and also provide food security,” explained Prof. Midgley.
He added, “We have also built an innovation centre that is open to not only those within the institution but also the larger community. Our innovation centre will assist in the development and commercialisation of ideas while also helping innovators secure their intellectual property.”
WSU holds a unique place in the research community owing to its commitment to ford the wide waters between technology adoption and incorporation of indigenous knowledge.
Further explaining this concept, Prof. Midgley said, “The institution is also researching on ceramics, auditing, and pending legalisation, we might also look into cannabis research. We also carry out extensive research in engineering and boast of being the only historically disadvantaged University in South Africa that produces engineers.”
Community Focused Research and Innovation at WSU
Walter Sisulu University is already on the way to fostering a better relationship with the community and uplifting the local economy. The institution has researched ways of eliminating food insecurity in the immediate community and other countries experiencing the same problem.
The study, centred on indigenous communities living around the East London coast – Kidd’s beach, Khiwane and Kayser’s beach, was conducted by senior institutional research associate Dr Thozama Mandindi of the Walter Sisulu University Center for Learning and Teaching Development.
The study revealed that the inhabitants of the East London coast consumed seafood every week; seaweed and microalgae or some kind of fish from crayfish, crabs, shellfish or hake were all on the menu.
In Mandindi’s yet-to-be-published research, she concluded that communities experience famine, malnourishment and affluence diseases because they veered away from indigenous foods that had always been available since time immemorial and a source of health benefits. Consequently, a return to cultivating these indigenous foods in both rural and urban areas should be the way forward to tackling food insecurity.
Not only does this address matters of food security, but it also boosts the economy of local communities. According to Prof. Midgley, Walter Sisulu University is “training small scale farmers who will boost local economies and also provide food security.”
Walter Sisulu University also engages with the local community through magnification and conservation of culture. In this instance, WSU’s Joan Broster Collection of AbaThembu tribal beadwork collection gazetted as National Heritage Antiquities by the South African National Heritage Resource Agency.
Broster collated the beadwork in 1952 through 1966; Walter Sisulu University recognized the venerated position the collection held in Xhosa heritage and bought it in 1995. With various ritualistic and symbolic significance in the Qebe community, this collection is vital in furthering the knowledge and understanding of the cultural heritage of the greater Southern Nguni peoples in the Eastern Cape.
With the new designation, the university has developed premises to house the 3000 invaluable antiquities and present them to the public, particularly the Qebe community. Not only will this preserve the heritage of the locals but it also draws both national and global attention to the region. It is in such a petri dish of culture that the local tourism industry springs forth.
Waste to Energy
One of WSU’s most noteworthy endeavours on both the local and global front is the novel biogas stove developed by WSU postdoctoral researcher Dr Frank Unuoufin. The innovation caught the eye at the second Innovation Bridge Showcase and Matchmaking Event held in Johannesburg.
Currently at an advanced stage of development, the biogas stove drew positive attention in a sea of over 100 innovators from different sectors, including tertiary institutions, hubs, institutes, business, government and investors who had come together to deliberate and share ideas about their latest technological and innovative developments.
The mechanism of action of the stove is underpinned by its ability to convert waste material that is stored in a drum to ferment, into methane gas which is then stored in a cylinder before being released into the stove for igniting.
Event attendees were impressed by the innovation’s prospective ability to help the poor and marginalised gain access to a more affordable and sustainable way of cooking – a concept that can be replicated in impoverished regions across the globe.
Developing local economies and creating global impressions
Walter Sisulu University now calls for South African companies, governments and investors to engage with the university in uplifting South Africa’s rural communities & economy. This is a relationship that adds positives to both sides of the equation.
Prof. Rob Midgley explains, “We can better engage with communities by relocating some of our departments and setting them up in these communities. An engineering department, for instance, can be located at a manufacturing plant, and a community development department can be located deep in the rural community. This setup will foster better community engagement and will prepare the students better.”
Leading by example, the university is undertaking several endeavours to bridge the gap between itself and various facets of community industry, causing ripples far beyond the borders of South Africa.
Prof. Midgely concludes with a vision of what can be achieved by increased academic – industry – community collaboration. “Institutions such as ours can help shape and secure the future. In five years, I want to see us running a modern operation that is technologically driven.
“I also want this institution to not only be proud of its identity, but also a University with a high-value proposition. In five years I want us to be living the fourth industrial revolution, and not just preparing students for it.”