Prof Dhanjay Jhurry

Vice-Chancellor | University of Mauritius

AfricaLive: I would like to start with a quote I have taken from one of your recent articles.

“Universities have to realise that the SDGs are well defined and it is through partnerships with the public and private sector and civil society that the goals can be achieved at local, regional and international levels.”

Building these partnerships – where there are often conflicting interests and beliefs – is truly one of the great challenges of our time.

What approach will you take to forming the different types of partnerships that are required?

Prof Dhanjay Jhurry: l truly believe universities have to contribute to their societies. I created a write-up that speaks to this by stressing on Universities addressing the SDGs using a target and indicator approach. We can easily match one or more stakeholders –public, private, university, community – with each of the 169 targets of the 17 SDGs. If we did that, we would find that about 47% of them (80 targets) should be driven by the government. The challenge is that governments alone cannot drive everything.

If you take gender issues, for example, governments may enact laws but they don’t have what it takes to affect much else. You need other stakeholders to come in and influence the issue in a more nuanced way. Those other stakeholders need universities to help them through consultancy, research, and other issues.

When it comes to university contributions; you find that out of the 169 targets, only 7 of them fall under the purview of universities alone. All the targets depend on partnerships based on either university-industry, government-university, or the interface of all three entities. It is, therefore, very clear how we should go about forming partnerships.

Forming partnerships is paramount, that’s first. The second thing is that individual universities have to stop trying to define their own SDG agenda. The SDG agenda is well defined by the UN and we do not need to spend time trying to remaster and reimagine the agenda.

If we get focused and work in partnerships, we can achieve another 47% of the targets which would be huge.
I believe that if we really want to advance the SDGs we need a targeted indicator approach and a rejection of the silo mentality. Partnerships can be very easily defined by looking at the targets.

AfricaLive: Often when we look at solving complex problems facing society, we find that there are conflicting interests between the various stakeholders involved.

How can we go about building strong partnerships when there are conflicting interests in play?

Prof Dhanjay Jhurry: This is why I brought up the targeted indicator approach concept. We can look at each SDG and do a mapping of all the factors and variables. If you address each one, we will have something to show for our efforts. Just focusing on the goal is too vague. Some goals need universities, industry, and government partnerships to succeed. Others need special bilateral partnerships to see them through.

At our institution, for example, we have taken note of the government’s focus on environmental issues. Even with the political will, the government is struggling to capture crucial data that can help its cause. We stepped in and offered to be their research arm for the cause and the Ministry of Environment took it well.

We formalized our partnership in 2020 and set up a Research Environment Observatory at the University of Mauritius. We are also working with the Ministry of Land Transport and Light Rail to tackle the road safety problem. We set up a Road Safety Observatory in March 2020. These are solid examples of how academia and government can come together and tackle issues of national concern and related to the SDGs.

I can also highlight partnerships with industry which expose the fact that companies lack the capacity to do it all alone. A textile company that wanted to produce face masks approached us because they wanted help in producing masks that provided proper protection from viral penetration. We rose to the challenge and came up with a Nanotech mask that is 98% antiviral.

We are also discussing with a car company that wants to recycle car batteries of electric vehicles when they need to be replaced. The thinking is how to reuse a car battery that still has 85% efficiency. This is the kind of work that falls under SDG 7 which is “investing in renewable energy”.

This illustrates how a targeted approach can work and what partnerships need to be made.

AfricaLive: Local communities have often been overlooked or pushed aside in the development of African economies, food & agricultural systems, and infrastructure.

Universities can engage with local communities more easily, but how can they ensure their voices are heard at the governmental and corporate decision-making levels?

Prof Dhanjay Jhurry: The triple helix method of innovation doesn’t hold if the community is not involved sufficiently. The COVID pandemic has shown us the need to reimagine the role of universities. We cannot just rely on universities to respond to the need of building human and intellectual capital but also business capital. We also cannot forego social capital.

Universities in Europe are ahead of us because they have put civic universities in place. There you see groups of universities joining together and funding civic agendas. We lack such activity in the African higher education scene.

We have different organizations in Africa that do a lot but we still come short when it comes to partnerships. I believe we have to start big in this instance. We can begin from our economic institutions such as SADC and COMESA and cascade down.

Universities can also take the agency through different initiatives such as our entrepreneurial drive that led to the establishment of the Agri-Tech Park at the University of Mauritius. We want to groom entrepreneurs to invest in modern agriculture.

Our other initiative is investing in solid waste management through a community partnership. Here we can work together to ensure the collection of solid waste and treatment. The thing about working with communities is that they don’t care much about rhetoric and plans of goodwill. All they want to see is action and impact.

In my view, one of the ways to leave a lasting impact is to introduce them to the power of technology. Most of the people you meet in the streets do not understand industry 4.0 and the benefits that can be derived from that. A proper understanding would help them learn that the current transport system is totally obsolete and that we need to modernise it.

If we do not invest in smart traffic systems, then we will not succeed. John Polanyi, 1986 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, once said, “people need to understand the power of ideas”. If people do not understand that, how will they understand innovation? We, therefore, need to enlighten the public and this cannot be done by one university alone.

AfricaLive: Let’s discuss the balance between economic development and sustainability. The interests of private-sector agriculture & technology firms may not match with the changes required in our food systems to build a truly sustainable and inclusive model.

There are always conflicts when we look at the detail: how does the university position itself when trying to find this balance?

Prof Dhanjay Jhurry: When we set up the Agritech Park, the idea was to develop modern and smart agriculture. Just like we have industry 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0, agriculture can have similar iterations.

Agri 1.0 would be the traditional form of agriculture, 2.0 would be the use of mechanisation and sensors, 3.0 the use of computers and 4.0 would then be things like A.I, robotics, and other additions. We have acquired substantial funding from the European Union to work on a project where we train farmers to invest in farming techniques that are compliant with climate change.

We work closely with a group of farmers from the eastern part of the island to impart farming techniques thanks to a funding program of 300,000 Euros from the EU. The project arose the interest of a famous hotel group on that part of the island and soon an agreement was struck between the university, the hotel, and the farmers. This was possible because the hotel saw the potential of higher quality products with fewer pesticides.

Recently we had a debriefing meeting between farmers, industry, and the university. Representatives from the industry were saying that they were ready to sign a contract with the farmers to buy produce at a higher price because they were assured of top quality.

This illustrates our impact when it comes to finding balance and showing that interests do not have to clash. We are not at agriculture 4.0 yet, but I see the African continent making progress. I am pleased when I see reports of African farmers incorporating mobile technology in their activities. RUFORUM is doing a great job to promote modern agriculture and address food security on the African Continent.

For example, I have seen videos of African women calling their neighbors to tell them that there was no need to water the farm on a particular day because the soil was humid enough and the texture was just right. Such a development shows that we have come a long way and we are making progress.

We need finance groups like the Africa Development Bank to step in and help however they can so that we can move this agenda forward. They can come in and help the industry invest in agricultural technology. Industry can invest in availing sensors to people for instance.

We can chip in by helping to educate farmers in Mauritius about the dangers of using pesticides. Addressing farmers last year, I stressed on the fact that climate change doesn’t just affect them, they help make it happen through non-sustainable practices.

AfricaLive: Looking ahead to 2022, in an ideal situation, what will The University of Mauritius achieve this year?

Prof Dhanjay Jhurry: We identified three goals last year that will be valid for the next five years. One is to continue our digitalisation strategy. This entails organising all the issues we need to straighten out such as online courses and exams. The digitalisation will be guided by 3 leading principles. These are; investment in tools, investment in more efficient processes, and empowering people.

The second goal is consolidating on sustainable innovation and this means intensifying our relationship with both government and the private sector. Thirdly, we would like to enhance all the efforts we are making towards internationalisation. We want to be the conduit that connects Asia and Africa. There is a lot of geopolitics happening, with European countries shifting their investments from Africa, into Indo-Pacific nations and India. Mauritius sits in the middle of this in an interesting way.

Mauritius has very good relationships with countries to the east, west, and north of the Indian ocean. We are looking to become a knowledge hub that can bridge all these places. We are part of IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association). It consists of 23 member states and we are looking to build strong links within the Association.

On 23 and 24 Feb, we shall be organising a Workshop entitled ‘Post Covid 19: Sustainable innovation to put the economy back on track’ that will feature areas of prime interest to member states such as the blue economy, tourism, digital health and the circular economy. The aim is to come up with some concerted action.

I believe internationalisation is not just universities developing programs, but universities helping to go much beyond that and pushing innovation forward.

I keep on stressing on the point that it is capital for universities to work in partnerships and embrace new ideas while shunning the traditional localised silo mentality.

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