Dr. Fulufhelo Nelwamondo

CEO | National Research Foundation

The question is, how can we rejuvenate South African industries? It involves revisiting the industrial landscape and figuring out how science can contribute to their growth, competitiveness, and success. We believe that by establishing robust institutions, including stronger universities, we can attract industry partners and make South Africa their destination for gaining a competitive edge.

Our vision for creating new industries may be ambitious, but we’re confident that it can be achieved.”

Key Points

  • A Globally Relevant Research Hub: It often flies under the radar of the international community, but South Africa continues to make significant contributions to global research, as witnessed by its contribution during the COVID-19 pandemic. South African research extends to physics, nuclear science, humanities, and addressing societal issues like migration and population movements.
  • Research with Real World Impact: The NRF understands research must have real-world impact. South Africa has suffered from the decline of many of its traditional industries. Research & innovation, conducted in partnership with industry, can unleash South Africa’s potential in emerging sectors such as lithium-ion battery production.
  • Africa’s Leapfrogging Industries: The African continent, with its youthful population, has the opportunity to lead in technology adoption and creation. Job roles are evolving with advancements in technology, creating new opportunities. 
  • Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge: In South Africa, the value of incorporating indigenous knowledge into research is understood. Traditional practices, such as those related to healthcare, offer valuable insights. Integrating this knowledge into the broader learning system is essential for finding cost-effective and accessible African solutions.

AfricaLive: For readers unfamiliar with your background and the NRF’s mission, could you provide an overview of your identity and your role within the research ecosystem?

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: Our primary role within the national context is to facilitate the creation of innovation, knowledge and development,  in all scientific domains, spanning from social sciences to humanities to STEM fields. We do this by supporting, promoting and advancing research and human capacity development. We are responsible for human capacity development by funding students and emerging researchers, including collaborations with universities to establish a robust talent pipeline. Our engagement extends to all 26 public universities in South Africa. 

We offer support for researchers across diverse domains through research chairs, centres of excellence, and mobility grants for conferences, amongst others. This aligns with our role as a significant research granting agency in South Africa, marking the initial aspect of our mandate.

The second part of our mandate revolves around providing research infrastructure. We oversee national facilities, which are large-scale research hubs, most of which span multiple domains. These facilities include nuclear facilities and research laboratories like our own iThemba LABS (Laboratories for Accelerator Based Sciences) for isotope production and nuclear science. Our focus isn’t solely on production but also on creating research infrastructure essential for nuclear physics, nuclear medicine, and cancer treatment experiments. These facilities are substantial investments, with notable projects such as the Square Kilometre Array, which has global significance.

In addition, we support initiatives that transcend individual universities and domains, like astrophysics and environmental observations, which also extend to aquatic biodiversity along our extensive coastline. We study various aspects, from fish species to plant biodiversity

The third part of our mandate  is to ensure that the public remains well-informed and engaged. This interview, for instance, aligns with this objective, as it addresses the importance of making science accessible to the community. 

We want to enable not just our research but also that of other institutions within the National Science System. It’s about conveying the value of science and helping the public understand how government investments in research benefit them. 

Lastly, we focus on enabling development, ensuring that our research aligns with government priorities, particularly in addressing issues like poverty, unemployment, and inequality in South Africa. We aim to make a positive impact on society through responsible and impactful science.

Elements of our funding involve university collaborations, interaction with science councils, and coordination with other research funding bodies in South Africa, such as the Medical Research Council. We aim to ensure a balanced allocation of resources and avoid over-concentration in one area unless it’s a deliberate strategic choice.


AfricaLive: Indeed. You raised a crucial point toward the end of your response, emphasizing the impact of research on South African society. While research can at times be overly academic, you stress the importance of considering the societal impact of research projects right from the grant application stage. It’s not just about publications but also about tangible impact.

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: Exactly. We’re pushing for a shift in mindset, where researchers think about the real-world impact of their work and outline the expected outcomes even before applying for a grant.


AfricaLive: At AfricaLive we are very aware that international audiences are often surprised to learn of the depth and quality of South African research. 

What would consider to be some of South Africa’s flagship projects?

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: South Africa has made significant contributions to global research. 

For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we played a crucial role in identifying and understanding the Beta variant. The NRF supported this work, which gained global recognition. However, it’s worth noting that some reactions were less favorable, with countries closing their borders to South Africans! Still, this showcases the impact of South African research. We also contributed to the global fight against COVID-19 by sharing technology and research on ventilators, even when many were focused on their immediate needs.

In South Africa, we’ve taken proactive steps to address critical gaps and challenges. During the ventilator shortage, we used technology from the field of astronomy to develop our own ventilators. This was a necessity since ventilators were unavailable for purchase. These are the kinds of innovative solutions we pursue in the healthcare sector.

Additionally, our work in physics and nuclear science has been remarkable. We recently completed the construction of the largest cyclotron on the African continent at iThemba Labs. This facility supports research in areas like tuberculosis and cancer treatment, including nuclear medicine. Our research covers a wide spectrum of fields.

We explore diverse areas, including humanities, to address issues like migration and population movements between our country and neighbouring nations. Understanding these dynamics can also benefit policymaking and service provision when individuals move between countries.


AfricaLive: It’s fascinating to see how certain endeavours can have a global impact while remaining globally relevant. 

We spoke with Prof. Nawangwe at Makerere University regarding a shift in mindset post-Covid towards finding local solutions and ending over-reliance on more developed countries. 

Do you observe a similar mindset in South Africa regarding the importance of local research and solutions and how you balance this with international collaborations, which are undeniably beneficial for research?

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: That’s an excellent question, and I’d like to address it in two parts. Firstly, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. We indeed need to find solutions for our unique challenges, particularly those specific to Africa. Often, these issues may not receive enough attention because they primarily affect our region. Take malaria as an example. If it were a global problem, we might have seen more concerted efforts to find a solution, as we did with COVID-19.

In response to these challenges, we need to develop our own solutions and take a lead role in addressing our problems. This requires a few key steps. First and foremost, governments need to recognize the importance of investing in research and innovation. Equally critical is building strong institutions that can drive research and innovation in Africa for Africans. This is essential for meaningful collaborations.

While we believe in a globalized Africa, this requires us to establish equitable partnerships within the continent. Sometimes, we don’t collaborate enough even within Africa itself. Building stronger connections within our continent allows us to address problems not only as individual countries but as a united region. Creating continental conversations and partnerships with other continents like North America and Europe ensures quicker responses and solutions that are better suited to our needs.

It’s about finding solutions that are appropriate for our unique contexts. We must acknowledge the value of building African solutions for Africa while still valuing international partnerships and the importance of robust institutions.


AfricaLive: Is the incorporation of indigenous knowledge essential for South Africa’s research future?

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: Absolutely, without a doubt. There are many areas where Indigenous knowledge is invaluable. Over the years, we’ve learned from practices that have been passed down through generations. For instance, in my village, people seek treatment from traditional healers who use indigenous plants. 

These practices have been essential. 

In the Western world, you can choose between Western medicine and Chinese medicine when you go to a hospital, which offers a variety of treatments. We need to integrate indigenous knowledge into our broader learning. 

It’s crucial to make this knowledge mainstream. 

When someone goes to a traditional healer, it should be seen as a legitimate option. We must take our indigenous knowledge with us because it has helped us combat various diseases. We’ve benefited from the wisdom of our ancestors who relied on indigenous plants and animals. The question is, how do we incorporate this into the broader scheme of learning? It’s a critical component of finding African solutions, which are often more cost-effective and accessible.


AfricaLive: We recognise that when addressing many challenges academia alone can’t provide all the solutions. Partnerships are essential. 

What, in your view, are the building blocks of a successful partnership? And, as an organization, how will you work to strengthen partnerships between South Africa’s research community and its industry?

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: To build successful partnerships with industry, it’s not just about forming partnerships for the sake of it. It’s about facilitating the smooth transfer of knowledge from knowledge creators, such as universities and research institutions, to the end-users, which often include industries that manufacture products consumed by the public. Establishing a seamless flow in this value chain is essential.

Moreover, engaging with industry can also ensure that your research remains relevant and accessible. When industries interact with the end-users from their communities and say, “We see you’re solving our problems, and we can manufacture more of these products,” it’s a strong indication of your relevance and the direct impact of your work. It leads to job creation, increases tax revenue, and has a broader economic impact. Partnering with industry is a way to address the high unemployment rates in South Africa, which are currently over 30%. We need to make our research innovative so that it leads to products that can transition from research labs to real-world applications. We need to engage with industries, understand their needs, and work together to bring innovative products to the market.

South Africa has experienced the decline of various industries, with numerous investors leaving, especially in textiles and mining. Our textile industry has almost disappeared. If you look at our mining sector, it’s shrinking, and even though it’s called the mining industry, it’s not South African-owned. The employees are South African, but the companies are foreign. The same trend is visible in manufacturing, which has been declining since the closure of Union Steel Corporation.

So, the question is, how can we rejuvenate these industries? It involves revisiting the industrial landscape and figuring out how science can contribute to their growth, competitiveness, and success. We believe that by establishing robust institutions, including stronger universities, we can attract industry partners and make South Africa their destination for gaining a competitive edge. What makes these industry partnerships successful? Trust is a crucial component, where we openly communicate and collaborate to create solutions that are relevant. Moreover, facilitating the exchange of personnel between academia and industry is essential. Within the NRF, we promote international and industrial exposure for students, ensuring that the individuals produced by our education system can address industry challenges effectively.

Addressing South Africa’s unemployment and economic challenges requires a collaborative effort. Our vision for creating new industries may be ambitious, but we’re confident that it can be achieved. To make this vision a reality, we need to work together, leveraging our scientific resources, funding agencies, government commitment, and partnerships with other African nations. For instance, we can explore opportunities in the lithium-ion battery industry, given the rich lithium resources in the region. This collaborative approach can lead to the development of new industries, even if we aren’t at the forefront of technologies like cell phone or laptop manufacturing.

We always mirror our roles, and it’s a question of changing the mindset to focus on pooling resources with adequate support from the government and industry. This approach can stimulate various secondary industries, especially in logistics, making the entire system stronger. So, if you ask whether I’m still hopeful, I’m very hopeful; it simply requires a change of leadership or mindset in many countries. Collaboratively pooling our resources can help us overcome these challenges.


AfricaLive: On the issue of commercializing ideas and research, we discussed this with Professor Pamela Dube at the Central University of Technology, and she mentioned that trust is indeed a challenge. 

This perspective is interesting, especially for smaller universities, where many good ideas emerge, and an entrepreneurial mindset develops among students and researchers. One challenge could be researchers are content with keeping their ideas as research concepts and may not prioritize commercialization. 

Is there a national initiative to create an ecosystem or support system to help researchers, even those with smaller ideas or businesses, find pathways to bring their ideas to market?

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: That’s one of the key initiatives we’re pushing at the NRF. We believe that research must make an impact, and we’re working to support the commercialization process. However, it’s essential to understand the context. Funding research is relatively straightforward because it results in a paper being published. Transitioning from a paper to a product or a technology demonstrator involves a more complex process. You face multiple challenges and failures, and it often requires more support than initial research. Researchers must address issues related to effectiveness, durability, and refining the product. This process can be long and challenging, but it’s a crucial part of innovation.

Most researchers are not trained to navigate this phase effectively. How do we ensure that our institutions produce researchers who are willing to embrace what may appear as “failures” but are, in fact, valuable learning experiences? We need to foster a mindset where people are encouraged to try, even if they face setbacks, and seek help from universities to improve and refine their ideas. The process may include failures, but these experiences are essential for personal and professional growth.


AfricaLive: I’d like to ask you one final question on a subject that I think you’ll be interested in discussing, given your own background: emerging technology, artificial intelligence and research being done in these areas. 

As we report on the future of the African continent, the fear many people have is that humans will not be at the centre of this technological progress, with potential impacts on jobs and entrepreneurship. How can Africans embrace and use technology in a way that benefits the African people?

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: I think one thing that puts Africa at the forefront (and I might be biased because I’m in Africa) is that when you look into new technologies, job roles change. I remember my first time in Johannesburg, I wasn’t allowed to press the button in the elevator because there was an operator who did that. Over the years, job roles have changed. We’ve also seen jobs like milkmen, who used to deliver fresh milk every day because there were no fridges. Those jobs have disappeared. So job roles keep evolving.

Africa, in some areas, has not had certain jobs, so AI and new technologies are not necessarily replacing existing jobs but rather bringing about new ones. The issue is that we’ve often thought about jobs in a traditional way, like being a bookkeeper. However, some jobs are becoming obsolete because of advancements in technology. For example, with self-driving cars, while there might be fewer drivers needed, we’ll require more people to work on the technology behind them. Africa should not be left behind; we need to start thinking about the future without being tied to past perspectives.

We need to train people in AI and other relevant skills to adapt to the changing job landscape. Africa’s youth population is its advantage.We should take this young talent and encourage them to think differently, prepare for new job roles, and address emerging challenges. Universities can play a crucial role in creating the capacity for people to think ahead, solve new problems, and not merely replicate what has been done in the past. The African continent, with its youthful population, has a unique opportunity to lead the way in this rapidly changing landscape.


AfricaLive: You’re confident that Africa can remain at the forefront of technology adoption.

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: Absolutely, and not only technology adoption but also creating relevant technologies. I believe that we can develop technologies that can assist in areas where it might not be necessary in Africa due to our young population. For instance, we might not need technology for household chores. We can export such technology to countries with ageing populations that might require it. 

Africa has a young population for the next 40 years, so how do we create solutions that we can export elsewhere? That’s what we should be focusing on.


AfricaLive: Great, thank you so much for the interview. It’s always interesting to speak to people involved in such varied and diverse research areas, especially those addressing the problems that South Africa faces. You sound quite upbeat and confident, which is a good sign!

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo: It is my passion to ensure that we develop, and that’s the role that the NRF has to play. We keep emphasizing the importance of universities. As a closing remark, last week, I met with the Deputy Vice-Chancellors of all the universities here. I told them not to focus on individual problems like grants but rather think about the system. We have to address our challenges and find ways to work together as a system. Competition should take a backseat; we are all on the same African continent, in the South African context. We should work together to advance the province’s interests. How do we ensure that our higher education system and research communities benefit everyone? That’s what we aim to achieve.


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