Prof. Kenneth Matengu

Vice Chancellor | University of Namibia

“Africa is a continent with rich resources but poor people, so we’ve got to work on the capability to convert those resources into wealth. 

We have a lot of sun that we have to convert into energy, conversion of rich soils into productive farms for food security and sufficient nutrition, and minerals that we have to convert into wealth. It’s our job as universities to ensure that we create these conversion capabilities across the continent, and we think the University of Namibia can play its part in that.”

Key Points

  • Namibia is set to take an exciting leap forward as the country invests in the development of emerging sectors such as green hydrogen. 
  • The University of Namibia has a key role to play and is already working with global partners to address challenges like climate change, diseases, and poverty.
  • The university is fostering a culture of creativity and entrepreneurship through its division for Innovation and Development, supporting students in turning inventions into innovations with real-world applications.
  • Key research projects include mapping traditional plant-based remedies and mosquito behavior for malaria prevention, developing a certified seed sector for food security, and establishing a Green Hydrogen Research Institute to contribute to sustainable development in Namibia and across Africa.
  • The University of Namibia is working to ensure that Namibia can shape its own future in the face of artificial intelligence by embedding critical thinking, ethical conduct, and societal consciousness in its curricula while collaborating with the government to develop appropriate legislation and regulations.
  • The university’s One Health project takes a holistic approach to health by combining human health sciences and veterinary medicine, recognizing the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health, with a focus on the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area.

AfricaLive: What makes up the DNA of the University of Namibia?

Prof. Kenneth Matengu: As a public institution, our mandate is regulated by the University of Namibia Act 18 of 1992. Our main purpose is to produce competent, high-level human resources for the country. Our approach is to inspire minds and encourage people to be free to experiment and try, while keeping in mind that whatever they do must be responsible – either pushing the frontiers of science, solving a local problem, or working with global partners to address challenges like climate change, diseases, and poverty. What makes up our DNA is relevance, impact, and responsiveness.


AfricaLive: It seems you’re looking to create a culture of creativity and entrepreneurship. Is that what you’re aiming for?

Prof. Kenneth Matengu: Absolutely. Creativity is important, but we also want to take those inventions that come from creativity and turn them into innovations with applications. We have created a division for Innovation and Development to assist our students by providing a space for them to try out ideas. Those ideas get evaluated, and we support them through the Chancellor’s Innovation Fund to experiment and be entrepreneurs. If they fail, they’ve learned what doesn’t work. If they succeed, they’re incubated for 18 months to grow and expand their businesses. We hope that as many of our students as possible will not be job seekers but will create employment for themselves and others.


AfricaLive: What are some of the flagship projects at the University of Namibia that are connected to research or innovation?

Prof. Kenneth Matengu: One of our programs is on indigenous knowledge. We’ve been establishing a baseline of different traditional plant-based remedies for various ailments. After mapping the plants and claims, we started validation work to assess the efficacy and run trials. We have examples of anti-diarrheal and anti-malarial products that can be used as prophylaxis.

Another part of this indigenous knowledge research involves mapping mosquito behavior using GPS, aerial photographs, hydrological data, and community practices to determine if the genomes of those mosquitoes are different and if the malaria cases are imported or not. This has implications for interventions and creates opportunities for the cosmetic industry.

In terms of food security, we have a seed multiplication program for sustainable agriculture. Namibia is a net importer of seeds, and we’re working towards creating a certified seed sector where the country would be self-reliant. We’ve been experimenting with white maize, pearl millet, potatoes, and wheat in different climatic zones, checking their viability in terms of drought resistance, pest resistance, and performance under irrigated or non-irrigated conditions. The results are very promising, but we need more partners to share what we know and learn from what others have done.


AfricaLive: Namibia is focusing on green hydrogen. How can the University of Namibia contribute to developing this sector and fostering sustainable development in other countries?

Prof. Kenneth Matengu: Everything we do, we have to think of exporting and scaling up because of our small population. As we’re putting together the Green Hydrogen Research Institute, operationalizing and testing different things, and training people, we’re open to taking Africans and people from anywhere to come and study this and work with us. They can spend time in our pilot projects and experimental sites, and we’d be happy to share what we’ve learned.

Africa is a continent with rich resources but poor people, so we’ve got to work on the capability to convert those resources into wealth. We have a lot of sun that we have to convert into energy, conversion of rich soils into productive farms for food security and sufficient nutrition, and minerals that we have to convert into wealth. It’s our job as universities to ensure that we create these conversion capabilities across the continent, and we think the University of Namibia can play its part in that.


AfricaLive: How can the University of Namibia work to ensure that Namibia is in a position to shape its own future when it comes to artificial intelligence, powering new industries with AI, and building the proper framework to avoid potential pitfalls?

Prof. Kenneth Matengu: We have transformed all our curricula to meet the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While focusing on taking advantage of technological opportunities, we’ve also thought it’s very important to embed critical thinking, ethical conduct, good governance, global citizenship, and societal consciousness in our curricula to make sure the dangers of AI are not taking advantage of the country.

At the same time, we have to work closely with the government in developing appropriate legislation. Our School of Law is involved in supporting the government in developing appropriate legislation and regulations that will ensure innovation is not suffocated but also doesn’t lead to exploitation.

UNESCO and the International Telecommunications Union are important partners that we work with in developing these initiatives. I was chairing the subcommittee on the future of work for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Task Force appointed by our late president, Dr. Hage G. Geingob. We are assisting the government in working closely to address the dangers of AI while also opening up opportunities that come with it, especially regarding the access to information bill and cybersecurity issues.


AfricaLive: What are your personal thoughts on AI? Are you optimistic or concerned?

Prof. Kenneth Matengu: I am optimistic. The potential of technology is enormous. You can do almost anything you want. The only thing that sometimes gives a mixed view is when these technologies get out of control, when there is no regulation and frameworks. Then we could get into a lot of problems, and we must take steps to avoid that.

I serve on UNESCO’s intergovernmental council on the management of social transformation, and artificial intelligence is a big issue because we have seen that there’s a lot of money being pumped by industry into the development of AI, and they are not always considering the social implications.

The challenge is not to suffocate creativity and innovation but to allow it to thrive in such a way that it is not harmful. It’s not easy. We’ve seen studies showing the interest of boys in being in school going lower every year. They are spending more time with technology, with TikTok and whatever else, and artificial intelligence is aiding that. What are we going to do about it? It has so many negative social ramifications.

As a university, I still think it’s our job to make sure creativity goes on, there’s freedom to innovate, but to do so in such a way that we are not on the cliff all the time.


AfricaLive: How can the human be placed at the center of Africa’s Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Prof. Kenneth Matengu: It is by having careful assessments of human needs. For example, in medicine, we are looking at TB cases in the country. Namibia is one of the countries most affected by multi-drug resistant TB (MDRTB). To give treatment to MDRTB patients, you have to apply personalized medicine, which can be done in different ways, but there are always challenges of distance, infrastructure, competent human resources, and issues of electricity to be able to do the diagnostics.

What our colleagues have been doing is developing personalized medicine profiles using genomes, but we’ve taken it to another level. In a few months, we will have a vehicle installed with x-ray machines that can go into the villages to diagnose. If the scientists or doctors on that vehicle wish to get opinions or second views, they can do that live. They can be in a rural area but get feedback and interact with their colleagues who may be in Windhoek.

It is taking advantage of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, and we can only do so by ensuring that we are focused on the challenges, not just thinking about business always.


AfricaLive: How confident are you in the future of Namibia? Can you give a score between 0 and 10?

Prof. Kenneth Matengu: Namibia is at a stage now where we are making a distinction between economic growth and development. Economic growth means foreign direct investments, jobs being created, capital inflows, the number and size of investments, and so on. But development is actually about what is happening to education. Are we not just asking how many people are in school, but is education creating competencies, meaning a product of qualification and experience?

We are asking what is happening to health. Are people accessing quality healthcare? What is happening to life expectancy? Is it increasing or going down? What is happening to livelihoods?

Because of these questions that are being looked at differently from just saying the economy is growing, I would say the country is at a phase where industrialization can actually start. For that reason, I would give it a score of 7.5 to almost 8 in terms of performance, but in terms of enthusiasm, I would give it an 8.

I wouldn’t give it a 10 because I think there’s still a lot of work, but I’m very positive that we’re in the right direction at the right speed. Whether we have the right tools to get this done is where I think the university needs to be supported with other partners to make sure, because the nation cannot develop without a skilled workforce.


AfricaLive: Is there any other project you’d like to put a focus on?

Prof. Kenneth Matengu: We have an important project called One Health. During the curriculum transformation, we merged the different schools. In the health sector, we made our Human Health Sciences and Veterinary Medicine into one faculty because we realized human beings cannot be healthy if the animals are not healthy, and animals cannot be healthy if the environment is not healthy.

The approach we have taken is to combine these aspects in terms of how we train and the research we do. We are building a Center of Excellence on One Health at our campus in Katima Mulilo. This campus is centered in an area called KAZA, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. It’s 562,000 square kilometers with more than 3.5 million people in Namibia, Angola, Zambia, and Botswana.

Our approach there is looking at human-wildlife conflict, livelihoods, agriculture, malaria, schistosomiasis, TB, anthrax, and all sorts of things. It’s a very exciting laboratory. The area alone has close to more than 200,000 elephants, a large number of wild dogs, lions, different predators, and fisheries that are very important for the livelihoods of the people.

We see innovation, creativity, and new policies being designed with many lessons for Africa. This is an area where I would like to invite many international partners to work with us. We are building infrastructure there with German funding of 15 million euros and designing rapid response capabilities for wildlife disease diagnostics because there are about 12 national parks in the different countries there. That’s where the challenges lie, and this is what we are building now.

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